Yucca may yet have pulse after ruling

WASHINGTON -- Nevada lawmakers on Friday celebrated a ruling by the federal nuclear safety agency that they said could close down Yucca Mountain once and for all.

But not so fast. As has been the case before, following court rulings and actions by Congress and other government bodies, there may still be a pulse in the beast, faint as it may be.

The delegation's latest embrace was a long-awaited ruling from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Some Nevadans saw it as spelling the end of the proposed nuclear waste site by the end of the month. But others said it fell short of complete closure.

While hailing the NRC ruling as a net positive in the state's long fight, "it is not the nail in the coffin we would have liked to have seen," said Joe Strolin, acting director of the state Agency for Nuclear Projects.

In a case that exposed internal divisions among leaders of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency's ruling board Friday announced it had deadlocked over Yucca Mountain in a 2-2 vote.

But noting that money was running out, it officially directed the licensing panel considering the Yucca project to wrap up its casework by Sept. 30.

The Obama administration had requested Congress zero out the NRC's work on Yucca, as it had previously terminated funding and closed shop at the Department of Energy on the multibillion dollar project.

President Barack Obama, with prodding from Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., had concluded the plan to bury nuclear waste deep inside Yucca Mountain 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas represented outdated thinking. The administration commissioned a panel to come up with alternatives.

The NRC tie vote failed to either uphold or reject a lower board's ruling on the proposed repository and left the legal status of a 8,647-page Yucca Mountain construction application up in the air. It provided grist for more debate over how the United States should manage its nuclear waste.

But in the short term it still provided a path to bring official action on the faded Yucca Mountain program to a halt under circumstances in which it would be increasingly difficult to resurrect it. And that prompted new rounds of optimism from state leaders.


"Nevadans deserve to be safe in their own backyards -- and I am pleased that today's vote won't interfere with closure activities," said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. "The sooner proponents come to the realization that Yucca Mountain will not be used as a nuclear waste dump, the sooner we can work on safe and viable alternatives for the long-term storage of nuclear waste."

"Today's decision by the NRC brings the Yucca Mountain saga closer to its final conclusion," Reid said. "I am pleased that the commission is ready to wrap up all work on Yucca licensing by the end of this month."

But others said the NRC's ruling was not a far-reaching one. From the perspective of Nevada, which has fought since the 1980s against what it considered to be an unsafe project, the board's ruling was neither a clear victory nor a defeat, some state officials said.

"It's pretty much the status quo," said Marty Malsch, Nevada's lead outside attorney on repository matters. "The license proceeding will disappear, but I guess it is where it has always been -- up to Congress whether to direct the NRC to continue."

Some Republicans in Congress said the show is not over, including leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. They noted the 2-2 tie failed to reverse a ruling by the agency's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board that only Congress, and not the Obama administration, could withdraw the Yucca license application.

"Today's action means the Yucca Mountain license application remains alive," committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., said in a statement.

The House voted in July for an energy bill that contained $35 million for Yucca Mountain and a directive that the NRC and the Department of Energy move forward on licensing.

"We expect the Senate and the president to put politics aside and cooperate with the full House so that license review may proceed," the lawmakers said.

But while the House has allocated funding for Yucca Mountain, a corresponding Senate bill contains none . Reid has said he would continue to use his influence as Senate majority leader to bring the Yucca effort to a full stop.


The NRC's action "is inexplicable," said Tony Clark, president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which has challenged the administration's handling of Yucca Mountain.

"Given the billions of dollars taxpayers and consumers have paid for this project, the NRC at the very least owes the public a thorough explanation of today's action," Clark said. "We are still reviewing today's decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The split vote by the commission leaves intact the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board's order."

Whether the license application is officially withdrawn "is a distinction without a difference," an Obama administration official said. In reality, the Yucca program is history, the official said.

"I don't know whether a future secretary of energy could just say restart (Yucca Mountain), but the program at the Department of Energy ended a year and a half ago and the program at the NRC is going to be closed out at the staff and adjudicatory levels by the end of the month," said the official, who asked not to be identified to speak frankly.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said there may be more fighting ahead.

"The nuclear industry and its Republican allies in Congress are trying every trick in the book to keep spending alive on Yucca Mountain," Berkley said. "Those pushing Yucca Mountain know they have a fight on their hands."

The Yucca Mountain issue had been before the NRC commissioners for 15 months, and the deadlocked vote came as little surprise. Internal debate over the project spilled into public view and prompted an inspector general investigation of agency Chairman Gregory Jaczko , who was accused of stalling a final ruling and taking actions in the meantime to speed the end of the project.