House panel investigates plan to halt Yucca Mountain site

WASHINGTON -- Ever since gaining control of the House in the November elections, Republican leaders have said they planned to challenge President Barack Obama's decision to abandon the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste plan.

Lawmakers accuse the administration of bowing to political pressure and overstepping legal bounds in moving to shutter the Nevada site.

On Thursday, citing the nuclear catastrophe in Japan that has raised new questions about U.S. management of its nuclear waste, leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced that they will investigate the decision to terminate the Yucca project.

The administration's move to shut down plans for a radioactive spent fuel repository "raises serious red flags," said committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the energy and the economy subcommittee.

The announcement came on the same day it was disclosed that a second House panel, the Committee on Oversight and Reform, is also examining Yucca Mountain and an unreleased Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety report on the project.

Meanwhile, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko on Thursday was grilled and scolded over his handling of the project by lawmakers from both parties during a budget hearing.

The debate over Yucca Mountain is clearly far from over, though Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., repeatedly has declared the project "dead."

Pushback comes from Republicans and also from some Democrats representing districts where radioactive spent fuel is stored at reactor sites.

NRC officials have said the material can be kept safely on site for 100 years or longer, but news of the radiation leaks from damaged spent fuel in storage pools at two reactors in Japan has reopened discussion about U.S. nuclear fuel policies.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said the House will restore some funding for the project. He said Reid, the majority leader who arranged with Obama to shut down Yucca Mountain, might face a challenge in the Senate.

"There are a majority of senators who support Yucca Mountain," Simpson said. "And with Japan there is probably a higher number of senators who support Yucca Mountain."

Reid spokesman Zac Petkanas said that the investigation comes as no surprise and that lawmakers are seeking to capitalize on the disaster to revive a plan that endangers the state's tourism-based economy.

"It is outrageous to suggest that Japan's nuclear power plant tragedy is a reason to resurrect the fiscally irresponsible and scientifically unsound Yucca Mountain project," Petkanas said.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., called the investigation "a political witch hunt being led by House Republicans who are hell bent on turning Nevada into a nuclear waste dump regardless of the cost or the dangers involved."

Upton and Shimkus said the Obama decision put the nation's nuclear waste policy in disarray.

"This administration has recklessly sought to pull the plug on the Yucca repository without even the sensibility of offering a viable alternative," they said in a statement.

The Energy Committee leaders sent letters to Jaczko and to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, giving a two-week deadline to respond to questions about the project.

Meanwhile, at a House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee hearing, Jaczko and Pete Lyons, DOE acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy, were told that lawmakers are angry.

Simpson and other panel members said the administration violated the 1982 nuclear waste law, which requires permission from Congress to abandon the Yucca site.

"I am at a point where I don't even care about Yucca Mountain because it has gotten to be such a political issue that it is taking away from our drive to actually solve the (waste) problem," Simpson said. "What bothers me is the law."

Simpson said the decision to scrap Yucca Mountain was "pure politics."

"Probably the most expensive electoral votes ever cast in this country were the four Nevada votes in 2008" cast for Obama, he said. "They cost us approximately $12 billion shutting down Yucca Mountain, or the attempt to shut down Yucca Mountain."

In unusually sharp comments, Simpson charged Jaczko with politicizing the NRC, which regulates nuclear power plants and the handling of nuclear materials.

Simpson said Jaczko, a former science adviser to Reid, was stalling a commission vote on Yucca Mountain, improperly directed staff to stop work on the project and had stifled release of a technical safety study.

"I firmly believe you are acting outside the law," Simpson said during a 30-minute exchange.

Jackzo countered that his actions were deemed legal and proper by the NRC's general counsel and were consistent with the agency's budget policies.

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