McCain modifies view on Yucca project

WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain threw up his hands today, acknowledging that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site may be mothballed by the Obama administration and calling for Congress to move on if that is the case.

McCain was a vocal advocate for the Nevada repository plan in recent weeks, while the Obama administration signalled it planned to dramatically scale back its budget and initiate a search for alternatives.

At a Senate energy committee meeting today, the Arizona Republican said Energy Secretary Steven Chu had made it clear that Yucca Mountain was no longer an option, and so it may be time to come up with a Plan B.

McCain said he intended to offer amendments to an upcoming energy bill that would acknowledge the shutdown and begin returning $22 billion in funds to electricity ratepayers that have accumulated in a repository construction account.

“Nuclear power is a critical component in securing our nation’s energy future and reducing greenhouse gas emission and I believe that moving forward on Yucca Mountain is a key step in growing a strong nuclear industry,” McCain said in a statement after the meeting. “However, if opponents of Yucca Mountain are going to hold this project hostage, then we shouldn’t be charging the American taxpayer and utilities for this facility."

With Chu declaring that Yucca Mountain was off the table, “let’s be honest with the American taxpayers and move forward on Yucca Mountain as we need to and I support, or if not, close it and refund the money,” McCain said.

While talk in Washington today was about the seeming death of the Yucca project, in Las Vegas the nuclear waste effort was very much alive as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began three days of hearings on an 8,600-page construction license application for the site 100 miles northwest of the city.

Chu has said the Obama administration plans to keep the Yucca licensing process going at the NRC even as it believes the project ultimately will not move forward.

The nuclear safety agency has been given four years to evaluate project safety, although most experts expect it will take years longer than that.

Chu has said there is science value in continuing the process. Today, his spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller added another reason, saying the decision not to rescind the license application was due to “legal and financial implications.”

“But there should be no question about the administration’s commitment to the people of Nevada to finding new solutions that don’t involve long-term storage at Yucca Mountain,” Mueller wrote in an e-mail.

The Energy Department already is being sued for failing to have a repository ready by 1998, and lobbyists have said that utilities would rush back to court seeking millions more in damages if the license application formally were withdrawn.

By DOE’s thinking, keeping the license alive keeps the lawyers at bay.

Regardless, outside the hearing room some ardent critics of the nuclear waste plan expressed worry that as long as the license process is ongoing, there is a chance the Yucca site could be resurrected, perhaps by a future president if not this one.

“There’s always a chance it could be revived. As far as this project goes, it looks like it’s still moving ahead,” said Joe Kennedy, chairman of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, one of a dozen groups seeking to participate formally in NRC hearings.

Bruce Breslow, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Projects Agency, expressed similar concerns.

“It’s still an option as long as the licensing application continues,” Breslow said. “We’re hoping for a political solution but Nevada is prepared to win the case in court.”

The state of Nevada has filed 229 challenges to the project. In total, there are 319 so-called “contentions” being brought before three-judge panels that will be conducting the license hearings for the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

The first order of business today was to hear oral arguments on giving the nuclear industry’s lobbying arm, the Nuclear Energy Institute, a seat at the table of affected parties.

Attorneys for the Energy Department, the state of Nevada and the NRC’s review staff all objected, arguing the industry group’s interest was not safety related, but based on economic considerations.

A decision by the judges on what parties will be allowed to intervene and what contentions will be allowed is expected by May 11.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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