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Energy Dept. No. 2 sworn in despite opposition from Nevada

Updated August 8, 2017 - 9:39 pm

WASHINGTON — Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette was sworn into office Tuesday as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission prepared for possible resumed hearings on a license application to store high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Brouillette was appointed by President Donald Trump to serve under Secretary Rick Perry at the Department of Energy, which has signaled it wants to restart the licensing process on the Yucca Mountain site.

“Dan Brouillette’s extensive experience and knowledge from working in both the public and private sectors make him a great fit,” Perry said.

Brouillette, who served at the DOE in the George W. Bush administration and with the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he found it a privilege to be part of a workforce advancing leadership “in scientific research and development, energy technology and nuclear energy.”

In a separate action, the NRC announced it would spend $110,000 for information-gathering activities and do market research on finding a facility in Nevada for possible licensing hearings.

“This announcement is another sign that the Trump administration continues to stack the deck against Nevada and maneuvers to revive the unworkable Yucca scheme,” Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said of the NRC announcement.

Titus said Brouillette is close to Perry, “and he worked for DOE under President George W. Bush, another pro-Yucca Texan.”

Storing nuclear waste from energy-producing plants has become a contentious issue in Nevada. Although Congress designated Yucca Mountain in 1987 as the nation’s repository for the waste, DOE has failed to complete the licensing application process to construct the facility.

The Obama administration withdrew the license application before the NRC in 2010.

But Trump has proposed reviving the licensing process and included $120 million in his budget blueprint for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1.

Any DOE license application to construct a repository at Yucca Mountain must be approved by the NRC.

Although Brouillette was confirmed by the Senate on a 79-19 vote last week, Nevada’s two U.S. senators voted against his confirmation citing Trump administration’s proposals for Yucca Mountain.

Sen. Dean Helller, R-Nev., voted against the nomination over the DOE’s disregard for public safety, environmental threats and its dismissal of consent-based selection of permanent storage locations for nuclear waste.

Private contractors in New Mexico and Texas have signaled an interest in storing nuclear waste from energy plants, although on a temporary basis.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., objected to Yucca Mountain as the site for nuclear storage when she served as Nevada attorney general, and filed challenges to the DOE licensing application.

Spokesman Rey Benitez said the senator “has a fair share of concerns about Dan Brouillette’s statements on Yucca Mountain and that is why she voted against his nomination.”

Efforts to delay or stop the Brouillette nomination were just part of an orchestrated effort by Nevada officials to halt progress by the Trump administration to carry through with their plan to restart the licensing process.

Brouillette has a background in energy, working for DOE under Bush as an assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental affairs. He later worked as the staff director for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has historically sought development of Yucca Mountain since the site was identified by Congress in the 1980s as the designated location to store nuclear waste.

Before confirmation he served as senior vice president for the United Service Automobile Association, or USAA, in San Antonio.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has been an ardent supporter of restarting the Yucca Mountain licensing, noting a backlog of nuclear waste at generating plants across the country.

Senate lawmakers have taken another tack, seeking permanent storage but also backing a major push toward interim storage and an effort to find other suitable locations for permanent waste.

While a House spending bill includes money to restart licensing on Yucca Mountain, the Senate bill does not.

“It’s irresponsible for the NRC to move forward on Yucca Mountain given that it’s unknown how much funding if any it will receive next year,” Heller said.

The NRC announcement said the steps involve “information-gathering activities related to the suspended adjudication on the application.” An online database of 4 million documents exist from the Yucca Mountain application before it was suspended.

Former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was a driving force in shelving the project during the Obama administration.

Opposition now includes the state’s Republican Governor, Brian Sandoval, Attorney General Adam Laxalt, and key state lawmakers. Besides the states’ two U.S. senators, the congressional delegation from Las Vegas opposes the site.

Officials from Nye County, where Yucca Mountain is located, and surrounding rural counties, as well as Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., support the licensing process to determine whether the location is scientifically safe to store nuclear waste.

In the meantime, opponents say the data is mounting that Yucca Mountain would be an unsafe repository.

Last month, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake was recorded just 33 miles from Yucca Mountain, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The seismic activity is being cited by the state as a reason to abandon the Yucca Mountain site for nuclear waste.

Contact Gary Martin at 202-662-7390 or gmartin@reviewjournal.com. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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