WASHINGTON -- Energy Secretary Steven Chu stood firm Thursday under sharp questioning from Senate Republicans, saying Yucca Mountain no longer is an option to store nuclear waste.
At an energy research hearing, Chu delivered his most direct comments to date that he plans to carry out the wishes of President Barack Obama to find an alternative to the long-delayed plan to build a repository at the Nevada site.
It was Chu's first appearance on Capitol Hill since Obama announced last week his 2010 budget will include money to keep a construction application under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission but otherwise will "devise a new strategy towards nuclear waste disposal."
The sharpest exchange at the meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee came with Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican campaigned for president last year on a platform to follow through with the proposed repository, where the Department of Energy has spent about $10 billion over 26 years of research.
"What's wrong with Yucca Mountain, Dr. Chu?" McCain asked during his turn to question the secretary.
"We have learned a lot more in the last 20-25 years," Chu said.
"I know that," McCain cut in. "What is wrong with Yucca Mountain, Dr. Chu?"
"I think we can do a better job," Chu said.
"Where?" McCain asked.
Chu said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has advised that nuclear waste can be kept at utilities for the time being "without risk to the environment."
Continued storage there or at regional interim locations "is something we can do today," Chu said. "That buys us time to form a comprehensive plan" that could include nuclear fuel recycling, but "we have a couple of decades to figure that one out."
McCain said Obama's policy would set back nuclear power, which he called a "clean" and nonpolluting source.
"So now we are going to have spent nuclear fuel in pools all over America, and we are telling the nuclear power industry we have no way of either reprocessing or storing spent nuclear fuel, and we expect nuclear power to be an integral part of this nation's energy future," he said.
Chu later told senators the Obama administration planned to assemble "an esteemed bunch of people to look at this," including some experts from overseas, with a charge to report back within a year. The idea of a blue ribbon commission has been floated by the nuclear industry, and is picking up support in Congress.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, echoed McCain, complaining the decision to restart on nuclear waste management will leave the nuclear industry "in limbo" as it tries to build more power plants.
"Boy, if I were looking to advance a new nuclear facility, the comments that we are starting the process would be very disconcerting," she said.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, asked, if not Yucca Mountain, where does the Energy Department to store high level nuclear waste it is under court order to remove from temporary storage in Idaho by 2035?
"I can tell you that contract is very clear," Risch said.
By law, Yucca Mountain is the option Congress chose for disposal of the nation's used nuclear fuel, which is currently stored at 104 reactor sites in 39 states in pools and above-ground casks.
The Department of Energy has been found liable for damages as a result of failure to have repository operating by 1998. It is settling claims by the utilities totaling hundreds of millions dollars from a taxpayers' judgment fund.
To make Yucca Mountain not an option and abandoning the project administratively "would generate a new wave of lawsuits" that would cost the government billions of dollars, said Paul Seidler, senior director in Nevada for the Nuclear Energy Institute.
"It would take it to a different level. You're talking about damage payments as well as a request for at least $22 billion that's been collected but not spent," Seidler said, referring to ratepayers' fund that the government taps to pay for the project.
Seidler said unless the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is changed, the federal government "has a legal and moral obligation to continue the license application and let the appropriate agencies make recommendation on safety of the site."
Chu's staff has not said if the Department of Energy will rescind the application or its applications for water permits to build a rail line from Caliente to haul nuclear waste to the mountain.
Bruce Breslow, director of Nevada's Nuclear Projects Agency and the state's chief Yucca Mountain opponent, said the state is prepared to go forward with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's review to show dangerous flaws with storing highly radioactive waste in the volcanic-rock ridge, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"As long as the application hearing continues, we will still be battling. We will still be on guard," Breslow said.
"We feel like we can stop the project through all of the issues we have at the NRC hearings, but we welcome a political solution before that."
Nevada lawmakers applauded Chu when word reached them of his comments.
"I am pleased that President Obama and Secretary Chu are holding firm on their commitment to kill the dump," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., focused on McCain, whom she said "has been shameless in pushing to turn Nevada into a toxic radioactive garbage dump."
A hearing on contentions with the Energy Department's application raised by Nevada, the Nuclear Energy Institute and other affected parties is scheduled for later this month in Las Vegas.
That will be followed in the fall by technical hearings before a board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The commission can take up to four years to review the application and determine if the site is safe for storing 77,000 tons of nuclear waste in metal canisters in a maze of tunnels inside the mountain.