Nuclear industry to fight Yucca Mountain bill

WASHINGTON — A battle line began forming today around a bill that would create an expert commission to evaluate the nation’s nuclear waste policies.

The Nuclear Energy Institute signaled it plans to fight the proposal as it is considered by Congress.

Spokesmen for the nuclear industry trade group questioned whether a commission could be independent when Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., would have the power to appoint two of its members, plus the chairman along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“NEI provided input to the majority leader’s office … but this is not the appointment process that we recommended or support,” spokesman John Keeley said. Having Reid and Pelosi appoint a chairman “does not provide the independence that the commission needs to be successful,” he said.

Another NEI official, Steve Kerekes, told the trade publication Nuclear New Build Monitor: “We feel it’s vitally important that it be a nonpartisan panel of experts, and that the chairman be above reproach and recognized as an independent figure.”

A bill introduced Thursday by Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., would establish a nine-member panel that would report to Congress in two years.

The commission would be asked to recommend alternatives for managing highly radioactive spent fuel from commercial power plants, and also high-level nuclear waste that was generated by military weapons programs. Those wastes are now kept at sites in 39 states.

The government’s policy has been to place the material in an underground repository under development at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. But President Barack Obama opposes the Yucca site and has indicated he plans to dramatically scale back the project.

The Nevada senators also oppose the Yucca Mountain repository. They said this week the commission would provide the Obama administration with alternatives.

But some in the nuclear industry are troubled that Reid’s intent is for the study panel to take Nevada off the table entirely as it evaluates nuclear waste policies. The government has focused solely on the Yucca site for more than 20 years, spending more than $10 billion on studies.

They point out that Obama plans to allow the Department of Energy to continue participating in repository license hearings at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission while other options are explored.

“It seems to be interesting that the administration would allow the license process to go forward but the majority leader would say that an ‘independent’ commission can consider only 49 states,” one industry official said today.

Among the possibilities is keeping nuclear waste stored at present locations indefinitely, moving the material to a centralized site and keeping it there in above-ground canisters, stepping up research into waste recycling techniques, or perhaps digging an underground repository somewhere else.

Reid spokesman Jon Summers defended the study bill, saying the appointment of commissioners will be split among congressional leaders. “The Republicans and Democrats on both sides of both houses are going to be involved in this process,” he said, adding that “expert scientists” will be conducting the study.

Under the bill, Reid would name two members, Pelosi would name two, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would name two and House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio would name two. Reid and Pelosi jointly would name the chairman.

Summers also said Reid “will continue to work with the administration.” Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a Senate committee this week he was forming a nuclear waste study commission, leading to questions as to whether Reid or the Obama administration would be taking the lead on the matter.

With the Energy Department struggling in recent years to make progress at Yucca Mountain, the Nuclear Energy Institute has downplayed the project’s importance in the industry’s plans to build more power plants. Now NEI policy focuses on other management tools in addition to the underground site.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., believes that with Obama’s opposition to Yucca Mountain, the site is dead and the nuclear industry needs to get over it, spokesman David Cherry said today.

Opposing the Reid legislation “will not bring Yucca Mountain back from the grave, so if that is the industry’s goal, they have already lost,” Cherry said.

“That tune may not make the nuclear industry happy, but it is sweet music to the ears of Nevada families,” he said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 775-687-3901.

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