Yucca Mountain Project directive prompted rare NRC confrontation

WASHINGTON -- A directive for scientists at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to begin closing out their evaluation of the Yucca Mountain Project prompted a confrontation among the agency's leaders, according to officials and documents made public Thursday.

One of the five commissioners who head the independent nuclear safety agency protested in a private memo shortly after the disclosure was made last week. On Oct. 8 , the commissioners voted by their method of submitting written responses.

The result, according to an agency spokesman, effectively upheld the shutdown guidance that had been issued through a budget memo signed off by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

After William Ostendorff raised the issue, he and Kristine Svinicki voted to allow staff to release an upcoming safety evaluation report on Yucca Mountain. Both are Republican appointees.

The remaining three -- Democrats Jaczko, William Magwood and George Apostolakis -- "declined to participate in the matter," according to NRC sources. In the absence of a quorum, the directive stood.

"The commission did not change the existing approach as a result of this vote," said Eliot Brenner, NRC director of public affairs.

As a result, the NRC "will proceed to an orderly closure of high level waste activities," as outlined in an announcement last week. A volume of the agency's safety evaluation report that was scheduled to be released next month will not be released, and staff will archive its work with $10 million allocated for 2011, officials said.

The disclosures Thursday provided a peek into top-level deliberations at the agency. It also made clear that the Yucca project continues to be a land mine even if it may be in its final days.

The vote came to light after Ostendorff released several documents on the issue, followed by Svinicki, who announced how she had voted. The other commissioners did not comment.

The disclosure that the commissioners had taken up the matter came a day after former NRC Commissioner Kenneth Rogers requested the agency's inspector general review how Jaczko has handled the Yucca matter.

Before he was Senate-confirmed to the NRC in 2005, Jaczko was an aide to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the leading Yucca Mountain critic on Capitol Hill who teamed with President Barack Obama to carry out a termination of the project that sought to bury 77,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste at a site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

"As long as Senator Reid is majority leader, there will not be a Yucca Mountain," spokeswoman Meredith MacKenzie said Thursday. "Yucca Mountain will be dead."

As news of the repository work stoppage circulated, so did speculation among lobbyists, former federal officials and bloggers that the directive may have been politically motivated. No evidence of that has been offered.

"From everything I have seen from the outside, the way the chairman makes decisions and the way he speaks to the community seems perfectly consistent with what the commissioners would feel comfortable with," Rogers said in an interview.

But Rogers, who served on the NRC from 1987 to 1997, said he did not believe Jazcko had the authority to issue a shutdown order, and he feared the NRC's reputation for independence was being tainted.

"As far as the public's view, there is perception as much as reality that counts and certainly the perception is that this is political. Anyone can see that," Rogers said.

An aide to Inspector General Hubert Bell said the request for an investigation was being evaluated, as are all complaints.

Brenner said the staff directive "was reviewed by the agency's general counsel and found to be consistent with the general principles of appropriations law."

Jaczko "feels confident of the legal basis for the approach," Brenner said.

One Yucca opponent, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., on Wednesday criticized Rogers, who was president of Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey when he was appointed to the NRC in 1987 with backing from nuclear industry leaders. He now is retired.

In an article he co-authored for the National Academy of Sciences last month, Rogers questioned the Obama administration's policy to move away from the Nevada site, saying it could hamper efforts to utilize more nuclear energy.

"This is a last ditch attempt by pro-Yucca groups who stand to make a fortune by forcing the Silver State to swallow a nuclear garbage dump Nevadans have opposed for decades," Berkley said.