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September 4, 2015

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Letter from Washington:

NRC flap a platform for Yucca noise

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Karoun Demirjian

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko answers a battery of questions pertaining to Yucca Mountain from members of the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment May 4, 2011.

If there was one take-away from this past week of intense scrutiny of Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko tailor-made for Nevadans, it was that the infighting at the NRC didn’t seem to have anything to do with Yucca Mountain.

But some lawmakers in Congress still really wanted to make that connection.

Since summer, a band of lawmakers with its sights on Yucca Mountain as a repository for the nation’s nuclear waste has been gunning for Jaczko, an opponent of the plan, charging him with sowing the seeds of discontent by strong-arming the commission into a vote that would keep the project suspended, just like Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (Jaczko’s old boss) would want.

The lawmakers’ unofficial ringleader is Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois. Earlier this year, he led a delegation of lawmakers on a fact-finding mission of Yucca Mountain; more recently, he’s chaired the Energy and Commerce subcommittee meetings looking into Jaczko’s actions on the issue, and organized colloquies on the House floor with some of his equally pro-Yucca colleagues to question why

the federal project has lain fallow for so long.

And on Wednesday he was tweeting.

“The Oversight hearing w/@NRCgov should remind us of #Jaczko’s illegal inaction on #Yucca Mnt,” he wrote as the House Oversight and Government Affairs committee spoke to Jaczko and the four other commissioners who have accused him of “intimidation and bullying” on everything but Yucca.

Shimkus has his reasons for pushing the Yucca Mountain angle: His home state, Illinois, gets 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, and they need someplace safe to put all of that waste.

But it wasn’t just the pro-Yucca Mountain camp pushing the Yucca Mountain angle. Some of the most vocal opponents of the project were also drawing the connection between the NRC affair and proposed repository, when it seemed to be a secondary subject at best.

“This is nothing more than an attempt by those who want to dump deadly nuclear waste in Nevada to turn our state into a radioactive wasteland that will endanger hundreds of thousands of Nevada families and destroy our tourism industry,” Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley said when the reports detailing the allegations against Jaczko came out.

So was this near-mutiny all really, secretly about Yucca Mountain? Or is there some Yucca-ization afoot?

Maybe.

The commissioners in the midst of the squabble say no.

Yucca Mountain “was a big debate, but I don’t see it as a big debate that broke relationships,” said Commissioner William Magwood, a Democrat on the NRC who some lawmakers allege was coerced into voting with Jaczko on Yucca Mountain. “We moved on to other things and there really was no lasting impact.”

But for the lawmakers with cards to play on the issue, it helps to keep the tension of the fight alive, especially as the project is set to be scrutinized in Washington, D.C.; next month, the Blue Ribbon Commission releases its final report on nuclear waste, and soon after that, a D.C. circuit court will hear a lawsuit brought by various groups hoping to restart construction at the facility.

While anti-Yucca Mountain advocates hope those events will close the books on the project once and for all, they could bolster Yucca proponents if a Yucca debate is already under way.

So far, Yucca is dead at least through the current fiscal cycle: There’s no money in the 2012 budget for it — Reid made sure it was zeroed out again in the appropriations package Congress approved this weekend.

But Yucca proponents have their eyes on him too.

“As soon as Reid is out of office, we’ll win,” Sen. Mark Kirk told the Sun this fall.

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