Obama sending mixed signals on nuclear, senator says

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is sending out mixed signals when it professes support for nuclear energy but then proposes to stop work at the proposed Yucca Mountain storage site for used nuclear fuel, a Republican senator said today.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska predicted the Senate will debate nuclear waste when it takes up an energy bill this spring.

She said she did not know whether any senator will try to reverse President Barack Obama, who has indicated he wants to scale back spending on the Yucca project in Nevada while evaluating other ways to manage radioactive material.

"You will see some amendments on the floor as to nuclear and how we deal with the issue of nuclear waste," Murkowski said at a meeting with reporters organized by the Platts Energy news group.

One possible amendment, Murkowski said, could be sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. Last year, Sessions was cosponsor of a bill that called for the Department of Energy to contract with private companies to store spent nuclear fuel at temporary sites, and eventually recycle the material to extend its use at power plants.

Murkowski is the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. At a hearing earlier this month, she and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., challenged Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Obama's plan to seek alternatives to Yucca Mountain, a project that is unpopular with Nevada's elected leaders and many residents.

Today, Murkowski repeated that she was "quite concerned about the signal that was sent" when the Obama administration in budget documents said it will seek a new strategy for nuclear waste disposal while scaling back funding dramatically for the Yucca Mountain program.

"It was just all these things, saying one thing, and then the actions coming out of the administration are going another way," Murkowski said. "That gives me concern."

"Secretary Chu said that nuclear needs to be part of a solution (to the nation's energy needs)," Murkowski said. "President Obama has suggest the same. But if we leave the issue of disposal hanging, then that lends uncertainty and anything that lends uncertainty is a further delay for the development of nuclear in this country."

Chu has said that he plans to appoint an expert commission to evaluate advances in nuclear waste technology since Congress set the nation's current policy of underground storage in 1982. Yucca Mountain was singled out for study in 1987.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.