Nuclear agency defends chairman’s Yucca Mountain shutdown directive

WASHINGTON — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday moved to dampen speculation that its chairman was acting outside the lines in directing scientists to begin closing down their work on the Yucca Mountain Project.

The agency in a statement said Chairman Gregory Jaczko was acting “consistent with budget and commission policy.” A spokeswoman said the guidance was not being challenged by other commissioners.

“There has been some finger-pointing on the chairman acting on his own, while the point is he is just following through on commission policy,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Hayden said.

The agency moved to quell speculation swirling around its complex in Rockville, Md., since it was reported this week that scientists were being advised to begin closing down their review of the Nevada repository plan.

Asked about the policy in question, NRC officials cited budget documents indicating no money would be available to continue repository studies in the new fiscal year that began Oct. 1. But Congress has not approved a new agency budget, and there was some dispute whether the agency could tap other sources.

On Friday, the NRC released an Oct. 4 budget memo in which Chief Financial Officer James Dyer and Operations Director R. William Borchardt noted the NRC had requested a deep cut in its 2011 budget for high-level waste. It said staff should proceed in accordance with that decision.

The directive was cheered by repository opponents but drew critical reaction in some states, as well as from former Yucca project officials and industry-leaning bloggers. They speculated Jaczko might have acted perhaps with a political motive to halt the review.

White House officials must clear NRC’s budget each year before it is sent to Congress. The Obama administration has shuttered the repository site and closed offices in Las Vegas and Washington.

But the NRC has not yet ruled whether its involvement with Yucca Mountain can be legally brought to an end.

NRC scientists have been examining rafts of studies and data concerning a nuclear waste complex at the Yucca site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The directive came weeks before the NRC staff was scheduled in November to release a key volume of its Yucca Mountain review. Volume 3 of a safety evaluation report was to address the central issue of whether the repository could safely contain decaying radioactive material.

Platts, a trade newsletter that covers the nuclear industry, reported the safety report had been written and was undergoing an internal review when the shutdown was ordered. Now it will not be issued, the publication quoted NRC spokesman David McIntyre as saying.

Marty Malsch, a former NRC acting general counsel, said the NRC answers to the president on budget matters and might not have any choice.

“If there’s no money, there is no money,” said Malsch, who now represents Nevada on Yucca Mountain matters.

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