Lawmakers seek to halt Yucca shutdown

WASHINGTON -- A group of 91 federal lawmakers Tuesday called for the Obama administration to halt the termination of the Yucca Mountain repository until legal questions about the shutdown are resolved.

The call came in a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu a week after a panel of administrative law judges at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that the Department of Energy cannot withdraw an application for the nuclear waste site without a new law from Congress.

The judges' ruling "is a clear statement that the department does not have the authority ... to unilaterally terminate Yucca Mountain," the lawmakers said.

The Department of Energy had no comment on the letter. DOE officials have said they planned to appeal the judges' decision to the five-member board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Meanwhile, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., was seeking lawmakers to sign a letter to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko questioning whether three of the commissioners might have "pre-judged" the Yucca issue.

In a draft copy obtained Tuesday, Sensenbrenner contends that three nominees who were confirmed faced "intense pressure" from Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., at their confirmation hearing in February.

William Magwood, George Apostolakis and William Ostendorff were asked by Boxer, the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, whether they would "second guess" the Department of Energy's decision to withdraw the repository application. Boxer told them the question came from Reid, the Senate majority leader. Each responded "no."

"We think it was an inappropriate commitment," Sensenbrenner's draft letter said. "The commission should examine each case on its merits, rather than pre-judging an argument. We hope the entire Commission considers the ... decision in an objective manner."

No calls have been made for any of the commissioners to recuse themselves.

In a conference call last week, representatives of groups that support the Yucca repository decided to hold their fire on the issue, sources said. Some attorneys who have researched the matter have concluded the burden of proof is high to seek the disqualification of an NRC commissioner.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., initiated the call for DOE to halt the dismantling of the repository project. The Obama administration has said it no longer wanted to move ahead with it and has established a commission to recommend alternatives.

The 91 signers include two dozen senators. Many other signers represent states where the government manages defense-related nuclear waste or where radioactive waste is stored at commercial power plants.

Besides the ruling from the NRC judges, the lawmakers said, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has fast-tracked oral arguments for September in combined lawsuits challenging the shutdown.