NRC chairwoman pressed to restart Yucca Mountain

WASHINGTON — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission chief was pressed Tuesday to move faster on restarting the licensing process for a nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain.

Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane told a House subcommittee the agency “promptly began taking steps” to resume work on the Nevada project after a order by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month.

But in the latest push by Yucca Mountain supporters, the committee’s chairman said it looked to him that the agency was stalling by asking stakeholders to suggest ways to move forward and giving them until Sept. 30.

“Here we are, nearly a month after the D.C. Circuit issued a writ … and the NRC’s only action we’ve seen so far is to invite the parties to comment,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., head of the environment and the economy subcommittee.

Republican leaders called Macfarlane to testify to keep pressure on the NRC after the Aug. 13 court decision that ordered the agency to resume licensing for the Nevada site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Besides inviting comment from interests involved in the Yucca issue, the NRC has directed its staff to draw up options for a budget.

The agency has said it has $11.1 million available.

“We are trying to understand what we can do with the limited resources we have,” Macfarlane said, adding there will not be enough money to complete a long and complex licensing process.

Lawmakers pressed Macfarlane to prioritize the release of key science evaluation reports, which contain NRC staff views on whether a Yucca repository could be operated safely.

Repository backers believe that favorable studies would provide a political push to further resurrect the project, which President Barack Obama ended during his first term. Others argue their significance is overstated because their conclusions probably will be challenged during licensing.

An initial estimate that it could take six to eight months and $6.5 million to complete the evaluation reports is being re-examined, but Macfarlane could not say when they could be finished or how much that could cost — which further frustrated Shimkus.

The science reports “are a significant part of the process, but it certainly does not constitute the entire licensing decision,” Macfarlane said.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., accused GOP leaders of being fixated on Yucca while the administration is putting together a new strategy for nuclear waste. He described the hearing as “a meeting of the Yucca Mountain fan club.”

While the court ordered the NRC to move forward, Waxman said it did nothing to solve a range of problems with Yucca Mountain. Chief among them, he said, is Nevada’s determined opposition.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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