Democratic senator challenges energy chief on Yucca Mountain decision

WASHINGTON -- Energy Secretary Steven Chu came under more criticism Thursday for moving to terminate work at Yucca Mountain, but he said the government was "pouring good money after bad" by pursuing what he called an outdated nuclear waste project.

At a Senate hearing, Chu got his latest earful from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. She demanded to know "who was consulted in making the decision that Yucca Mountain was not viable."

"You say that Yucca Mountain is not a workable option, but what seems to be missing is why," she told Chu, asking him repeatedly what science was used to back up the Obama administration's decision to end plans for the underground waste repository.

Murray said billions of dollars have been spent at the Hanford nuclear reservation in her state to clean up and begin packaging liquid nuclear waste for eventual disposal at the proposed Yucca site, but no consideration was given to residents there and other places where highly radioactive waste awaits removal.

"This is really disturbing to me," Murray said. "This leaves everybody just in complete limbo after 30 years of working on this."

Chu was at the hearing to discuss the DOE budget, a day after department attorneys filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a move to withdraw a construction application for the waste site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

On Wednesday, Chu faced similar criticism from several House members at a science hearing.

Most of the Capitol Hill complaints have come from Republicans. Murray became the first Senate Democrat to challenge the president and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., an engineer of the administration's policy.

Despite the scattered criticism, no groundswell has risen to reverse the decision to scrap Yucca and put future policy in the hands of a panel that begins work this month.

For instance, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Thursday that he opposed shutting down the Nevada repository effort, but the Obama administration overall has made strides by supporting new loan guarantees for reactors and making quality appointments to federal boards dealing with nuclear energy.

It could not be learned whether Murray was taking her frustration to Reid, or giving him a heads-up that she was going to air her criticism.

Reid understands that "people need to do what they need to do for their home states," said his spokesman, Jon Summers. On the other hand, everyone knows where Reid stands on Yucca Mountain, and "the dump is not going to be built, period."

Previous administrations pressed on with Yucca Mountain, adapting the program when it encountered technical challenges. Chu told Murray that President Barack Obama wants a fresh start.

For instance, he said, when Yucca Mountain was found to have more fractures than expected, which might enable moisture to work its way into waste tunnels, managers came up with a fix that was a "multi-, multibillion-dollar titanium shield that's installed under the ground."

"As these things go on, you are beginning to think, 'Are you pouring good money after bad?' " he said. "I don't believe science is willing to say that Yucca Mountain is the ideal site given what we know today and what we believe we can develop in the next 50 years."