Gibbons backs off on nuclear panel pick

Under pressure for appointing a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project supporter to the anti-Yucca state Nuclear Projects Commission, Gov. Jim Gibbons on Wednesday rescinded his choice of Nye County Commissioner Joni Eastley to replace vice chairwoman Michon Mackedon.

“This position on the Nuclear Project Commission requires a representative who shares the primary sentiment of Nevada’s residents and my administration’s views on the Yucca Mountain Project,” Gibbons said in a statement, accepting Eastley’s resignation before she even attended one of the commission’s meetings.

The statement refers to Eastley’s “decision to resign” but doesn’t explain why she chose to do so. Gibbons has said if he found out Eastley was a Yucca Mountain supporter he would rescind her appointment.

“It is my intention to have representation from Nye County and to ensure that this person can work with commission on our ongoing efforts to defeat the Yucca Mountain Project,” Gibbons’ statement reads.

Attempts to reach Eastley in Tonopah were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, some of Nevada’s leaders and the Democratic Party harshly criticized Gibbons’ decision to let the state engineer give the Department of Energy water for another 30 days of drilling near the planned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

The federal agency’s effort at the mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been staunchly opposed by Nevada’s elected officials. Many are saying the state is missing a chance to prevent DOE from gathering geologic information from the site that’s needed for licensing the project’s above-ground facilities.

“I don’t understand the logic,” said Richard Bryan, a former governor and U.S. senator who chairs the Nuclear Projects Commission.

Bryan said he was out of the loop in the governor’s decisions on both the Yucca water issue and his choice of Eastley for the commission.

“Nye County has been a problem for the delegation almost from the beginning,” Bryan said, prior to the governor’s reversal of selecting Eastley to fill the seat of Mackedon, a long-time opponent of the Yucca Mountain Project. Mackedon’s term ended June 30.

“I don’t know where she stands, but Nye County and Lincoln County have been thorns in the side of the delegation’s opposition to the dump,” Bryan said.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said he, too, was scratching his head about Gibbons’ approval of cutting DOE some slack on water use at Yucca Mountain for another month, even though the use for drilling is not in the state’s interest.

Ensign said he wasn’t consulted by the governor after State Engineer Tracy Taylor first ordered DOE to stop using the state’s water for bore-hole drilling on June 1. Taylor lifted the cease-and-desist order 12 days later while he mulled letting DOE continue its deliberate, unauthorized use of the water until mid-August.

“The lawyers I have on my staff say it doesn’t make sense to them,” Ensign said. “We are trying to figure it out. I don’t understand it.”

Ensign said he had not spoken with Gibbons, but would do so.

“We are trying to find out why they think this would be the right policy,” Ensign said.

The state historically has taken the hardest lines against the Energy Department on Yucca Mountain matters. Ensign said a change of strategy was news to him.

He said Nevada’s handling of Yucca matters “usually is done with more coordination” between Nevada officials and the congressional delegation.

In a statement Wednesday, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., urged Gibbons “to reverse his administration’s recent decision.”

“Denying the Department of Energy access to water for work at Yucca Mountain is one of the strongest weapons Nevada has in its fight to prevent our state from becoming a nuclear garbage dump,” Berkley said.

“The Energy Department should not be able to use one single drop of Nevada water to further President Bush’s goal of dumping toxic nuclear waste 90 minutes outside Las Vegas,” she said.

Berkley noted that Bush “is pushing Congress to pass legislation that would override Nevada’s control of its own water resources.” She said Bush “realizes that without water, there will be no nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain.”

Meanwhile, the State Democratic Party pointed to Eastley’s stance on Yucca Mountain, describing her as one of the most vocal supporters of the project.

“Either Gibbons didn’t check her position or isn’t being straight with Nevadans to tell us he is stopping the dump. It’s either one or the other,” said Kirsten Searer, deputy executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party.

Gibbons said Tuesday he will insist that all appointments he makes to the Nuclear Projects Commission align with the state’s long-standing anti-Yucca views.

Gibbons spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said the governor wouldn’t react to comments by Ensign and Berkley.

“We’ve already stated that we’re going to support the decision,” she said, referring to the state engineer’s decision.

Gibbons confirmed Tuesday that he backs Taylor’s letter this week to DOE, giving Yucca Mountain officials until Friday to accept the letter’s conditions. If DOE agrees, then federal scientists must stop using Nevada’s water for drilling bore holes by Aug. 15, giving DOE roughly enough time to finish 80 bore holes where water is needed to cool and lubricate bits and create mud for sample collection.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Gibbons’ decision to back the state engineer’s letter amounted to an act of surrender in the state’s decades-long fight against the Yucca Mountain Project.

“I am terribly disappointed. This is a bad day for Nevada,” Reid said Tuesday.

If DOE doesn’t accept the letter’s conditions, then after Friday “no water may be used for any bore hole drilling projects currently underway,” Taylor’s letter reads.

Not accepting the terms would make the issue ripe for legal action.

Marta Adams, Nevada’s senior deputy attorney general, has been handling the Yucca water case. She oversees the court-approved agreement on water use that Taylor accused DOE of breaching and said she is ready to enforce the state engineer’s decision.

“At this point, since the engineer has opined we will be enforcing the order, we stand ready to support it and enforce it.”

Stephens Washington Bureau chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report.

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