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Congressman, regulator clash in rare Capitol Hill tangle on Yucca Mountain

WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill confrontations over Yucca Mountain are rare these days, but one took place Wednesday when a House chairman and the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tangled on funding for the dormant nuclear waste site in Nevada.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., pressed NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane on why the agency did not ask Congress for funding this year to continue the licensing process for the Yucca site, as Shimkus maintained was ordered by a federal court last summer.

“The NRC has a statutory requirement, but you don’t request funding to carry it out,” he said.

As she has repeatedly said when questioned, Macfarlane responded the agency was “following the law” on Yucca Mountain. The court directed the agency to continue work on a Yucca license as long as there was money available, but it did not say the Obama administration must seek new spending. It hasn’t as it has moved to kill the program.

“Let me explain about the Yucca Mountain situation,” Macfarlane said. “We received an order from the court requiring us to continue the licensing process with existing funds, and we have done so.”

Macfarlane did report the NRC would complete work by January on key science evaluation reports, which would cost $8.3 million out of roughly $11 million remaining in its nuclear waste account. The SERs are expected to present NRC staff scientists’ views as to whether Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, might safely store nuclear waste.

But other licensing tasks, including long and complex public hearings on the suitability of the Yucca site, were expected to cost many millions of dollars more and appear unlikely to take place.

Shimkus and other proponents of a Yucca repository believe a positive NRC staff report could give the project momentum to be resurrected. Others say that it would be more likely to open new fronts for confrontation and that little will happen as long as Yucca Mountain foe Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., continues to serve in Congress.

After failing to draw out Macfarlane on Yucca funding, Shimkus, the chairman of the House energy and power subcommittee, turned to other NRC commissioners who appeared with the chairman at an NRC budget hearing. He asked them individually whether they favored more Yucca funding.

NRC members have been split on Yucca Mountain. Commissioner Kristine Svinicki told Shimkus she favored seeking more funds for the project, as did Commissioner William Ostendorff. Commissioner William Magwood did not answer directly, saying NRC staff is still studying how much it would cost to finish the licensing process.

Commissioner George Apostolakis has recused himself from Yucca Mountain matters.

The exchange showcased lingering attention on Yucca Mountain, once the government’s proposed site to dispose of more than 77,000 tons of high level nuclear waste, and a major topic of controversy and conflict between the Department of Energy and the state of Nevada.

President Barack Obama cut off funding for the site after he became president, and Reid has worked various angles to ensure it remains unfunded and dormant. In the meantime, a commission has recommended other strategies to dispose of the nuclear waste accumulating at commercial power plants.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, asked Macfarlane what would happen if the science evaluation reports show Yucca Mountain to be safe. How long would it take the government to build a repository complex and begin storing waste there? Five years? Ten years?

“No, I think they’re looking at a long time frame,” Macfarlane said.

Even under the most optimistic scenarios, it was estimated that a Yucca Mountain repository would take more than a decade to build at a cost approaching $100 billion.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau chief Steve Tetreault at 202-783-1760 or STetreault@stephensmedia.com. Follow @STetreaultDC on Twitter

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