Published Wednesday, May 4, 2011 | 8:51 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, May 4, 2011 | 9:07 p.m.
WASHINGTON — In the nearly 30 years that members of Congress have been duking it out over a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, lawmakers have respectfully reserved their political punches.
But as Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, a subcommittee chairman, renew a push to develop a dump in Nevada, they’re pointing an accusing finger at the nonpartisan body whose duty it is to review Yucca Mountain’s licensing, and accusing its chairman of illegal political collusion and malice.
“We are beginning an investigation and this, today’s hearing, is not going to be the end of this,” Upton said at a hearing Wednesday at which four of the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including Chairman Gregory Jaczko, were testifying. “We’ve just started to scratch the surface.”
It’s a bold tactic that seems partially born out of concerns about internal tensions in an important regulatory body, but heavily focused on discrediting the one agency that seems all but poised to dismantle the Yucca Mountain repository before it can actually usher the project out the door.
The Republican lawmakers’ focus on the commission began in late March when they sent Jaczko a letter requesting he submit documents for an investigation into “the decision-making process related to the pending license application for construction of a high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain.”
What they hoped to prove, through documents that have started to pour in, is that Jaczko was using his position to stall, marginalize and influence votes against Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. That was all supposed to stay secret, though — until ranking Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman of California blew the lid off it at the hearing.
“Rep. Shimkus has alleged your decision is illegal and political at the highest level,” Waxman said to Jaczko. “Do you think you violated federal law by directing staff to close down review?”
“No,” Jaczko said.
“Did you delay action on Yucca for political purposes?” Waxman said.
“I made a decision to have the staff stick to the timing that they had previously indicated,” Jaczko said. “It was in no way a political action intended to reference any political figure or direction from any political view.”
Republicans decried the public unveiling of a clandestine investigation as “unconscionable,” with Shimkus adding that “it only emboldens the case that there’s something fishy going on here.”
The allegations of wrongdoing seem pointedly focused on Jaczko, who has led the commission since 2009. Before that, he served as top science adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and the two share opinions on the viability of Yucca as a dump site: Simply put, to them it isn’t.
That connection wasn’t lost on lawmakers Wednesday or in emails they’d been collecting — which weren’t made available to the public, except when Waxman read them.
One email, dated Sept. 7, suggested that Jaczko was delaying a decision on Yucca so that “Reid gets no bad news before Election Day.”
The last official decision the commission took was in June when its licensing board determined that Energy Secretary Steven Chu couldn’t unilaterally withdraw the licensing application. Then in August, commissioners filed preliminary opinions on the final status of the license.
Although those don’t carry the weight of a vote, commissioners testifying Wednesday were adamant that their written positions from last summer hadn’t changed — causing Republican lawmakers to wonder aloud why Jaczko was waiting for what seemed like a formality.
“The chairman, who is an honorable, decent man who’s been in my office a number of times and who I have great admiration for, appears to me to be playing some kind of a foot-dragging game,” Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton said. “He thinks on June 30 he’s going to apparently get a new commissioner who agrees with his position and can then issue this order.”
On that date, the term of Commissioner William Ostendorff, an Obama appointee, ends.
Ostendorff is one of two Republicans on the commission and the author of a proposal in October that is the only clue as to where the commissioners stand on Yucca. He proposed reversing Jaczko’s decision to close all work on the Yucca licensing, arguing that could only be done if the application was “withdrawn” or “suspended,” which it hadn’t been.
Commissioner Kristine Svinicki voted for it. The other three commissioners voted “no participation,” a noncommittal option that dodges a majority opinion, which is how the commission reaches its decisions.
That didn’t sit well with Republicans, who continued to build their case against Jaczko, characterizing him as the despotic ruler throughout the hearing. They criticized his tone in addressing their questions, his use of the pronoun “I,” his insistence on preserving the anonymity of commission proceedings and his request in March to fellow commissioners to avoid the nuclear monitoring center during Japan’s Fukushima crisis so that workers wouldn’t get distracted.
“You’re very opaque when you speak, Mr. Chairman,” Louisiana Rep. Bill Cassidy said to Jaczko. “I really get a sense that there’s a lot that’s unspoken here.”
Added Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry: “I think we have now found the most secretive agency or commission on Capitol Hill. Perhaps this is a politically run organization now.”
It was clear from the meeting that the commissioners were not one big happy family, but neither were the congressmen, as Jaczko attempted to defend himself.
“I see internal tensions, but I haven’t heard the commissioners make any of the charges that the chairman made,” Waxman said.
As for the Nevada delegation, they’re ignoring this new focus on the commission.
Reid dismissed Wednesday’s hearing as “nothing more than a forum for a small group of radical pro-Yucca zealots to make ridiculous assertions in a misguided attempt to breathe life into a project that’s never going to see the light of day.”
“It is time for proponents of Yucca Mountain to move on,” Republican Rep. Dean Heller said. “The fact that Yucca Mountain is a threat to public safety should be enough to terminate this project, but given our nation’s dire financial situation, it makes little sense to keep spending taxpayer dollars on this ill-conceived project.”
“When Yucca was selected, it was not based on science, it was based purely on politics ... as now,” Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley said. “I think Mr. Shimkus needs to get a life. And he also need to get an alternative” to Yucca Mountain.