Chu says DOE to move forward on Yucca shutdown

WASHINGTON -- The Department of Energy has the legal authority to terminate the Yucca Mountain program over the protests of lawmakers who say DOE needs further permission from Congress, according to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

"My general counsel has studied this matter closely and has advised me we do have the authority within the law to take the reprogramming actions we have planned," Chu said in a letter Friday, two days after he was challenged by members of a House energy subcommittee.

Chu further cited a decision by a Nuclear Regulatory Commission legal board to halt the licensing process for the proposed Nevada repository until the NRC can rule on a DOE request to withdraw the project entirely.

"In short, I do not believe we should spend money on a licensing process that has been suspended, especially given the administration's intention to pursue alternatives to Yucca Mountain," Chu said in the letter to Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., chairman of the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee.

Chu's letter came after several subcommittee members challenged the Yucca Mountain shutdown at a hearing Wednesday, saying it went against Congress' direction when it passed a 2010 DOE spending bill, and also possibly violated other federal work force laws.

"I don't think you can do it unilaterally. You do have to have some statutory authority," Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., told Chu at the hearing. There was no immediate public reaction Monday to the secretary's letter.

In February, DOE Chief Financial Officer Steve Isakowitz told House and Senate leaders the department proposed to shift $115 million within the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management out of repository program accounts and into shutdown accounts.

"The department intends to dedicate the remaining funds available in fy (fiscal year) 2010 to bring the Yucca Mountain project to an orderly close," Isakowitz wrote in the letter obtained by The Energy Daily.

Shutdown activities, Isakowitz wrote, included "work force transition," cancellation of management contracts and office leases, archiving documents and preparing the repository site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas for maintenance awaiting environmental restoration.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760.