Yucca project review halted

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tossed water on the embers of the Yucca Mountain project this week, directing agency scientists to halt a formal review of the nuclear waste site.

The guidance by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko could hasten a final chapter on the nuclear repository program, whose personnel have dispersed and whose offices in Las Vegas and Washington were shut down as of Oct. 1.

The move was applauded by Nevada federal and state officials eager to see the nuclear program ended. But it has raised hackles in other states and among industry groups, and attorneys said it could add fuel to the ongoing legal battles over the project's remains.

The commissioners who lead the nuclear safety body have not yet ruled on a Department of Energy request to withdraw a construction application for the site -- about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas -- raising questions as to whether it might be premature for NRC analysts to stop their work, some attorneys said.

"As a general matter, when an administrative agency has an application before it, and in particular the NRC, there is an obligation to review the application," according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry's lobbying arm. "That would be a general principle, that as long as an application is pending, which it is, the agency is under an obligation."

An attorney for the state of Washington, one of the parties suing the Department of Energy over the Yucca Mountain shutdown, asked the NRC and the Department of Justice on Wednesday for more information, a possible precursor to further legal action.

In Nevada, the head of the nuclear projects agency said the state earlier this year formally requested the NRC halt its Yucca Mountain review after the Obama administration indicated it wanted to shut down the project.

For the NRC to continue producing reports about Yucca Mountain "would be a waste of taxpayer money," said Bruce Breslow.

Meredith MacKenzie, a spokeswoman for leading Yucca critic Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the writing has been on the wall for Yucca Mountain's demise for some time.

"The president's FY11 budget clearly stated that the Yucca Mountain project was being closed out," MacKenzie said. "Why would anybody want the federal government to continue wasting time and valuable resources working on a license application for a project that has no money, no staff, and no chance of ever being built?"

"The NRC and its chairman are 100 percent right to move forward on ending Yucca Mountain given the dump's lack of funding and continued opposition in Nevada," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.

The guidance to NRC staff came in the context of a memo, issued Monday by Chief Financial Officer James Dyer, on how the NRC would manage its budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, according to NRC officials.

"The chairman is the principal executive officer of the NRC and the staff is now following previously established commission policy that directs a transition to begin an orderly closure of high level waste activities," according to a statement issued by the agency.

Agency spokesman David McIntyre said the NRC would allocate $10 million during the new budget year to archive documents gathered during the NRC's long involvement with the Yucca program.

McIntyre said the memo was an internal document and there were no plans to make it public. Neither Jaczko nor the other four commissioners planned to comment, he said.

An appeal to allow the Department of Energy to withdraw its Yucca Mountain application has been pending since July, after a lower board rejected DOE's request.

There has been wide speculation among officials in various states and industry-leaning bloggers that a final ruling has been delayed because Jaczko favors Yucca termination but has not gathered a majority among three other commissioners to join him.

There are five commissioners but one, George Apostolakis, has recused himself from the case.

Jaczko, a physicist, has served on the NRC since 2005 and was designated chairman in 2009 by President Barack Obama. Previously, Jaczko was a top aide to Reid, who fought the Bush administration to nominate him and later to appoint him to a second term.

The NRC commissioners do most of their deliberations in writing or behind closed doors, and other agency officials have not been able to shed light on the Yucca case that many attorneys expected to be settled by the end of the summer.

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