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Chu: Keep Yucca license on track — for now

WASHINGTON — Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a group of state officials this morning he favors moving forward toward licensing a nuclear waste repository in Nevada, although whether it would ever be built is another thing altogether, according to officials familiar with the meeting.

Nuclear waste was one of the topics on the agenda when Chu met with 12 to 15 state public service leaders attending an annual conference of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

Regarding the Yucca Mountain Project, “it sounds like what he said was positive in that (DOE) wants the process to continue. It made our guys happy,” said Rob Thormeyer, the association’s communications director.

But according to several people who were in the 20-minute session, Chu stressed that President Obama doesn’t want the Yucca repository, “and I work for the president.”

“It sounded like the expectation is (nuclear waste) will be stored at sites for a long time,” said one participant who asked not to be identified since it was a private meeting.

“The impression I got is (Chu) wants to learn from the (repository) license review,” said one person in the meeting. The proceedings would continue in order for the government to work through issues associated with licensing a first-of-its-kind nuclear waste site, according to this view.

The episode appeared to shed further light on the thinking of the new energy secretary and a possible Obama administration strategy on the Nevada project. Chu’s reported remarks to the utility group were consistent with his views as reported last week in an interview with the New York Times.

While some in Nevada and in the environmental community would like to see the Obama administration withdraw the repository application DOE sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last summer, Chu’s remarks suggest there are no plans to do so immediately. It could take four years or longer for the NRC to review the application.

DOE spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said she could not confirm what Chu said behind closed doors.

“What I can confirm is that the secretary has made it clear that Yucca Mountain is not an option as a nuclear waste site and he is committed to charting a path forward,” Mueller said.

“No decision has been made on how the application would be handled,” she said.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners monitors the nuclear waste program from the vantage of 39 states where nuclear waste currently is stored. It also follows the status of the special ratepayer-funded account that was established to build the Nevada site.

The group was preparing to pass a resolution at its conference this week stating the Yucca Mountain review process “should be allowed to run its course.”

The nuclear waste discussion was a small part of the meeting where the secretary also discussed electricity transmission, state portfolio standards for renewable energy and carbon capture and sequestration technologies, Thormeyer said.

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