Yucca Mountain shutdown criticized

WASHINGTON -- A departing leader of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week criticized President Barack Obama's handling of the Yucca Mountain shutdown, saying it has damaged the government's credibility on nuclear matters.

Commissioner Dale Klein made his remarks in a speech Tuesday at a conference attended by more than 2,700 industry officials, academics and scientists.

Klein announced his resignation last fall and will step aside in the coming weeks when a successor is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

But on his way out the door, Klein said he found the Obama administration's handling of the proposed Nevada nuclear waste repository to be "unfortunate" in that it has caused new uncertainty over how the nation will manage highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel.

"The administration's handling of the matter has already led to the filing of a number of lawsuits and clouded the path forward in a number of significant ways for years to come," Klein said.

Klein said although Obama has the right to change course, he did not think the administration gave a fact-based reason to set aside the plan to build an above-ground industrial complex and a below-ground warren of tunnels in which the waste would be stored and eventually buried.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff is in the midst of multiyear safety review, while panels of the commission's administrative judges are hearing legal challenges to the project. Both would come to an end if the Department of Energy is given permission to withdraw a construction application.

"In my opinion, the administration's stated rationale for changing course does not seem to rest on factual findings and thus does not bolster the credibility of our government to handle this matter competently," Klein said.

His criticism echoes others that have been aimed at Obama and the Department of Energy in the last few weeks by a handful of lawmakers, and organizations representing the nuclear industry and state utility regulators.

The Obama administration has stood firm in declaring it is done with Yucca Mountain, where the proposed repository was the nation's preferred waste management strategy for close to 30 years. The site drew opposition from some scientists, environmental activists and a majority of Nevada residents as potentially unsafe and certainly undesirable.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said the repository program was outdated, and there is promise that emerging technologies might be able to wring more energy out of used nuclear fuel while reducing its toxicity. But those could be decades away, while the radioactive waste would remain stored at reactor sites either in pools or in above-ground casks.

Obama promised to shelve the repository program during the 2008 presidential primary campaign in which the support of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was crucial to securing Nevada, an early caucus state. Since then, Reid has had Obama's ear on nuclear waste matters and has declared Yucca to be dead.

A commission formed in January will be given two years to develop recommendations on a path forward, with Chu and White House officials saying Yucca Mountain will not be on the table for consideration.

Klein, a former Department of Defense official and nuclear engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was nominated to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by President George W. Bush, and was its chairman from July 2006 to May 2009. At that point, Obama named fellow commissioner Gregory Jaczko, a former Reid science aide, to replace him as chairman.

In his speech, Klein criticized "those who would distort the science of Yucca Mountain for political purposes." He noted Obama a year ago issued a memo stating, "The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions."

"I honestly cannot say if Yucca Mountain could ever meet the stringent tests that would allow it to be licensed," Klein said. "But I do know that, under the law, that licensing determination … and the technical evaluation of the science … is the NRC's responsibility."

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.