Republicans accuse NRC of stalling Yucca review

House Republicans said the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission isn’t moving fast enough to resume study of a nuclear-waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, saying the agency has the money.

“The NRC again appears to be stalling” in response to a federal court’s decision last month directing the agency to continue its safety review of the project, Representative John Shimkus of Illinois said at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing in Washington today.

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane, who testified at the hearing, said that while the agency has about $11.1 million in unobligated funds to consider the review, it doesn’t have sufficient money to complete the licensing process. The agency is still assembling its estimate for the amount needed.

About 65,000 metric tons of spent-nuclear fuel are now being stored at about 75 operating and closed reactor sites. In the Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced legislation to move forward with a nuclear-waste bill that doesn’t specify whether the abandoned Yucca Mountain project should be resumed.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled Aug. 13 that the NRC must continue its safety review for the facility, located about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas. The agency halted the evaluation after President Barack Obama’s administration in 2010 cut funding for the Yucca program, saying the project was not a workable option. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, opposes the facility.

‘Fiscally Responsible’

“Compliance with the law is not optional,” Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said. “Resumption of the Yucca Mountain program remains the clearest, fastest and most fiscally responsible way” for the government dispose of spent-nuclear fuel, he said.

“We of course intend to follow the law, we are now following the law, we are moving forward,” Macfarlane said. The agency is “moving as expeditiously as possible” to continue its review, she said.

Shimkus, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, said the agency has the funding to move forward with the Yucca project, which has cost taxpayers and industry about $15 billion.

Revising Estimate

“You’ve confirmed in testimony that you have the funds available” to release the safety review, he told Macfarlane. “Are you going to comply with the law based on your previous statements and the fact that you have money to do so?”

Macfarlane said the agency has asked its staff to begin working on a revised estimate of what’s needed to complete the study and that the agency is seeking input from interested parties through the end of the month.

The court ruling neither resolved the question of funding for the safety review, nor has it moved the U.S. toward a new approach for dealing with the nation’s commercial nuclear waste, according to Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat.

“The reality is that the court decision has not really changed anything,” he said.

Macfarlane said yesterday that she would participate in proceedings related to Yucca Mountain, over the objections of officials in Nye County, Nevada — where Yucca Mountain is located — who had sought her recusal due to her previous academic work on the topic.

“I can state unequivocally that I have not reached any conclusions, and I have an open mind” on the Yucca Mountain licensing process, Macfarlane wrote.