Nuclear waste hearing turns testy over Yucca Mountain

WASHINGTON — Leaders of an expert study panel urged Congress on Wednesday to abandon the long-troubled strategy that has failed to solve the problem of how the nation should dispose of nuclear waste.

Co-chairman Lee Hamilton said members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future don’t expect lawmakers to act this year on broad changes it has recommended after a two-year study.

But he urged some steps be taken on reforms, including a new “consent-based” approach to finding a state willing to host burial of high-level nuclear waste that has accumulated at power plants and government installations.

Hamilton said the cooperative strategy “is the only path on the table to get us out of the box” after the long impasse over the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

“We can continue along to fight the same battles we have fought for decades with no conclusion, or we can step back and try to chart a new course, and that is what we are recommending to you,” he told members of the House energy and environment subcommittee.

The hearing on the commission’s findings turned testy after lawmakers kept returning the discussion to Yucca Mountain. They insisted it remains the most promising solution even as the Obama administration has shut it down.

Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., said the plug was pulled too soon on Yucca Mountain, making it impossible to judge whether it could be safe or gain acceptance beyond the state’s rural counties.

Shimkus and other Republicans placed blame on President Barack Obama and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader who led the state’s opposition, fought the project on Capitol Hill and persuaded the president to terminate it.

“I reject the premise that we have failed,” Shimkus told Hamilton and co-chairman Brent Scowcroft. “This president and this majority leader have failed to comply with the law, and that’s why, unfortunately, they’ve asked you to spend a lot of time, effort and energy covering their rear ends.”

After nearly 30 years and expenditures of about $15 billion, Yucca Mountain “is one of the most significant failures of American policy on an energy issue ever,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky.

But Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said lawmakers should “move past a narrow obsession with Yucca Mountain,” which he pointed out was designated in 1987 after Congress cut short an initial site selection.

Others were more resigned.

“The Nevada delegation pledged eternal opposition, and they meant it,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.

Rep. Gene Green, R-Texas, said, “Certain political realities must be accepted in the here and now.”

Hamilton and Scowcroft were pressed on Yucca Mountain to where Hamilton finally spoke up.

“Our view is we’ve had 30 to 40 years’ experience, and as a country we have not been able to reach a solution,” he said. “You can blame whoever you want. I suspect there is blame to go around. The fact is, the process we have been following has not worked for whatever reason, and it continues to roll up huge costs to the American taxpayer.

“If you stand around and insist on Yucca, Yucca, Yucca, which people have been insisting on for a long, long time but have not been able to pull it off, we think the result of that is an impasse,” Hamilton said. “You are correct. Yucca Mountain is the repository. The only problem is we can’t enforce the law. That has not been the solution.”

In a statement after the hearing, Reid said Yucca Mountain proponents should accept that the program is over.

“The Yucca project is dead, and the sooner all Republicans realize this, the sooner we can finally develop a nuclear waste policy that protects all Nevadans and Americans,” he said.

At the hearing, several lawmakers challenged whether any state would volunteer for nuclear waste. Scowcroft pointed to New Mexico, where the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant opened in 1999 to store certain forms of defense nuclear waste.

“This process of siting is going to be a very difficult process,” Hamilton said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760.

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