WASHINGTON -- Officials from states that are storing millions of gallons of nuclear waste urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday to put its scientists back to work evaluating Yucca Mountain as a potential disposal site.
Attorneys for Washington state and South Carolina filed a formal motion with the agency alleging that Chairman Gregory Jaczko acted improperly in directing the staff to "begin an orderly closure of high level waste activities."
"The chairman's unilateral decision to halt review of the license application violates NRC regulations," the attorneys said.
Further, they said it amounts to an "end run" around four other commissioners and disregards a pending case in federal court challenging the Yucca shutdown.
The states were joined by Aiken County, S.C., where the federal government stores 36 million gallons of highly radioactive waste at its Savannah River complex. In Washington state, more than 53 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste are at the Hanford site.
The parties argue that the NRC commissioners have yet to rule on an Obama administration request to close out the license application for Yucca Mountain. And until they do, the evaluation cannot be ended, they argued.
The NRC confirmed receipt of the motion. Spokesman David McIntyre said the agency, as its usual practice, would not comment.
Neither Jaczko nor any of the four other commissioners has commented on the guidance, which staff said came in the context of a budget memo for the new fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Amid the silence, unconfirmed rumors swirled of palace intrigue at the top levels of the agency that otherwise has a reputation as a by-the-book body whose focus is on regulating the safety and security of nuclear power plants and the handling of nuclear materials.
Agency spokesmen moved Thursday to dispel whispers among attorneys and lobbyists of some significant and impending development in the commission's handling of Yucca Mountain, perhaps an announcement in some form of a vote.
McIntyre said the commission has no meetings scheduled on the topic, and two of its five members are out of town this week.
The Yucca issue is seen as politically sensitive among policymakers as it touches on Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader who is up for re-election.
Reid contends the nuclear waste burial in Nevada is unsafe and unsound, and has made its termination a part of his career and his campaign. Through the Obama administration, he has engineered the shutdown of project offices and all but buried decades of government drive to locate a nuclear waste site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Before he joined the NRC in 2005, Jazcko was a top aide to Reid handling appropriations and nuclear matters. An NRC ruling that allows the Yucca Mountain construction application to be withdrawn "with prejudice," meaning it could not be refiled, could amount to a final nail in the coffin.
Nevada leaders who have opposed the program say they are hopeful of a final ruling to kill the program for good, although some unconfirmed reports suggest the commission is split and could come down either way.
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said Thursday Jaczko's decision to halt the staff review in the meantime was "a sound decision."
"I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that this misguided project never sees the light of day," Titus said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.