WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Wednesday dissected the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s still unresolved handling of the Yucca Mountain Project, expressing frustration over the agency’s unusual voting rules and renewing accusations that its chairman might have manipulated the case.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, a former U.S. Senate aide, denied an accusation that he had delayed NRC action on the controversial Nevada nuclear waste project to protect Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., during last fall’s elections.
"It was in no way a political action or intended to reference any other political figure or direction from any other political view," he said.
But a three-hour hearing spotlighted divisions between Jaczko and three other commissioners who appeared alongside him as witnesses before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. A fifth commissioner was traveling and did not testify.
Lawmakers expressed bewilderment at Byzantine and secret NRC voting procedures that have failed to yield a final decision after close to a year on whether the Department of Energy can withdraw an application to build a nuclear waste-handling and storage site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"I am very disturbed at this commission," said Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., "I think we have now found the most secretive agency or commission."
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, charged the voting rules have enabled Jaczko to "play some sort of foot-dragging game" on Yucca Mountain, a charge denied by the agency chief.
The Obama administration has terminated the Yucca Mountain project within DOE, and has zeroed out funding for the NRC’s portion of the case.
The moves have infuriated lawmakers from both parties who represent states that draw significant electricity from nuclear power and thus hold substantial caches of highly radioactive spent fuel and waste.
Republican leaders have initiated investigations of the administration’s shutdown of the program, charging it was illegal because Obama bypassed Congress.
"Today’s hearing is not going to be the end of this. We are just starting to scratch the surface," committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said.
But some drama was injected when Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., upstaged the Republicans by disclosing several emails gathered by investigators that had been written last fall by an NRC staffer on the Yucca Mountain program, Dan Graser, charging Jaczko with acting illegally and with harboring political motives.
Waxman gave Jaczko the opportunity to respond, leading Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., to charge Democrats were trying to sabotage an ongoing probe. Taking the unusual step of leaving the hearing to speak with reporters outside the room, Shimkus said disclosing staff emails could chill potential witnesses.
Waxman responded that he was providing Jaczko the chance to respond to "irresponsible accusations" by Shimkus, who has charged Jaczko with injecting politics into the technically minded NRC.
Questioned by lawmakers, commissioners aired differences with Jaczko. Kristine Svinicki and William Ostendorff confirmed they disagreed with Jaczko’s directive last October to shut down its work on the Yucca Mountain Project.
Commissioner William Magwood said the panel divided over a letter to Congress regarding release of a Yucca Mountain report. While the commissioners voted on one draft, Jaczko chose to send a different one, leading to two letters being delivered.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.