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Tabled NRC report calls Yucca project safe

WASHINGTON — A key safety report that was kept under wraps at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives a thumbs up to the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site, according to a congressional study released on Wednesday.

The disclosure by the Republican-controlled House Science and Technology Committee could give fresh ammunition to members of Congress and officials in a handful of states who are seeking to revive the Nevada project, which has been all but terminated by President Barack Obama.

Administration officials have declared the Yucca site to be unworkable, partly because it has been rejected by Nevada residents who think it would be deadly hazardous. Before Obama’s presidency, the site had been studied by government agencies since the early 1980s.

But an evaluation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff of how the site might work to contain radioactive particles from decaying high-level waste for more than tens of thousands of years concluded the site could be safe, said science committee members who examined a copy of the study.

The 695-page NRC staff report "demonstrates in excruciating detail the level of technical support among NRC and (Department of Energy) experts in favor of the site’s advancement," the committee said.

Elsewhere in its report, the science committee asserted its investigations over 2½ years "reveal not just a pattern but a systematic and active effort on the part of the administration to obfuscate, delay and muzzle scientific and technical information in order to shut down Yucca Mountain."

The Department of Energy in 2008 supplied the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff with material to support a bid to construct underground storage for spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste at the site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The Energy Department reversed course under Obama and is seeking to withdraw its application, but not before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff spent two years analyzing it.

The nuclear agency’s staff agreed with 98.5 percent of the Energy Department’s findings. The remaining 1.5 percent "did not impact the NRC staff’s overall conclusion, which found the DOE’s Yucca Mountain license application complies with applicable NRC safety requirements," the science committee stated in a 40-page report that contained another 160 pages of supporting material.

The full Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety report has not been officially released, but copies were provided to U.S. House committees that are investigating the shutdown of the Yucca project. The agency released a redacted version in February.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko initially argued against releasing the full report, saying it was in draft form and had not been fully vetted. He was outnumbered by other members of the NRC governing board

Obama critics have contended a safety report that encouraged development of the Yucca Mountain site was not welcomed by an administration that wanted to end the program outright. They contend the report was slow-walked through a draft review process until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suffered budget cuts that made its finalization difficult if not impossible.

Others are saying that, no matter what, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff report still has not been vetted and that the House Science Committee report should be taken with a grain of salt.

"It’s unfortunate that House Republicans chose to release draft findings from an incomplete, internal staff document that doesn’t represent the final safety opinions of the NRC," said Zac Petkanas, a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a foe of the repository plan.

"The fact is that Yucca Mountain has many problems," Petkanas said. "We’ve wasted far too much taxpayer money chasing a bad project. It’s time to grow up and find cost-effective solutions that actually keep the people safe."

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

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