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August 29, 2015

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Republicans press NRC chair for answers on Yucca Mountain

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Yucca Mountain is located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Yucca Mountain

The U.S. Energy Department plans to store spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, an extinct volcano about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

The crisis that engulfed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and threatened to tip the scales on the Yucca Mountain project last year is in the past, if the bipartisan nods of reserved approval that new chairwoman Allison MacFarlane received at her reconfirmation Thursday are any indicator.

But that doesn’t mean Republicans and Democrats are ready to bury the hatchet on whether to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

“Your tenure has brought significant change to the NRC. I believe collegiality has returned to the NRC,” Republican Sen. John Barrasso said this morning at MacFarlane’s hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Thursday.

But, he said, “I’ve long been a supporter of Yucca Mountain, and I continue to believe the project should move forward.”

Despite the lack of funding for Yucca, the opposition of both President Barack Obama and Sen. Harry Reid and a process to reconfigure nuclear waste management in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Yucca Mountain will not be a dead issue until a federal appeals court issues a final ruling.

Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee tried to pin MacFarlane — a former member of the president’s blue ribbon commission on nuclear waste who falls firmly into the anti-Yucca camp — on how she would handle the NRC’s response to Yucca if the courts ordered the government to keep pressing ahead with the project.

“We will follow the law,” MacFarlane said. “We are very aware of the importance of this court decision not only to the NRC but to the public, the nation as a whole.”

“But the court decision would represent the law and you would follow it?” Sen. David Vitter asked, pressing MacFarlane to clarify.

“We would follow the law,” MacFarlane said.

“If there’s nothing in the court decision that prohibits that, I would specifically request that,” Vitter retorted.

MacFarlane took over leadership of the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission in July in the wake of a management crisis centered on commissioners’ frustrations with then-Chair Gregory Jaczko’s leadership — specifically his handling of the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in Japan and the commission’s review of Yucca Mountain’s waste repository license.

Jaczko, a former advisor to Nevada Sen. Harry Reid with a well-documented disdain for disposing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, had delayed a vote on whether the license should proceed and then shelved the project in a way Republicans charged flew in the face of federal law.

More troubling to Democrats and Republicans, however, was that his fellow commissioners told the Inspector General that Jaczko used “intimidating and bullying tactics” to bend them and commission staffers to siding with him and cut commission members out of key decision-making processes.

While Jaczko denied any wrongdoing, he eventually resigned and MacFarlane took over.

Since then, the NRC has continued to file paperwork in the court case, arguing the same line as Jaczko did — that the NRC does not have adequate funds left over from previous appropriations cycles to put toward pursuing the Yucca license in any meaningful way.

During court proceedings last summer, the NRC said it had about $10 million left in unspent funds earmarked for the Yucca project.

Vitter also pressed MacFarlane to release an unredacted version of its internal report on the safety of Yucca Mountain, something Republicans in the House have been calling for as well.

MacFarlane said she would await the court’s directive and pledged to “conduct the agency’s process in an open and transparent manner.”

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