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April 28, 2017

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GOP: Politics at play in commission’s Yucca Mountain review

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 »

Republicans are complaining that politics, and not procedure, is influencing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review of the nuclear waste repository licensing application for Yucca Mountain.

Fueling their charge is a report by the NRC’s inspector general that paints Gregory Jaczko as a chairman who hasn’t broken any laws, but “rul(es) by intimidation,” and withholds, slow-walks, and shares information with the other commissioners on a need-to-know basis as he personally defines it, with the suggestion that he may be doing the same with the long-awaited release of the final Yucca Mountain vote.

Nevada lawmakers have been trying to kill the Yucca Mountain project since before the country even sited it as the nation’s nuclear repository in 1987. In the past few years, they’ve been successful — mostly because Nevada Sen. Harry Reid has been able to scratch project funding from appropriations bills.

The one thing that could put an end to these annual scrambles is scrapping the project entirely. To do that, a majority of the five-member NRC board would have to agree that the Energy Department has the right to withdraw its Yucca licensing application.

But that requires a majority — which it doesn’t seem Jaczko’s got.

On June 30, the term of Commissioner William Ostendorff, the most outspoken critic of Jaczko’s Yucca tactics on the board, comes up for a renewal — and many lawmakers assume even his temporary absence could change the vote.

Most lawmakers assume the commission is locked in a 2-2 tie, because Commissioner George Apostolakis has recused himself from the Yucca process for a conflict of interest.

Jaczko, a former adviser to Reid, is of the same mind as Reid when it comes to Yucca: He thinks it’s time to move on from the Nevada mountain, and has effectively put a stop to the licensing procedure for this fiscal year.

Ostendorff, a Republican, has criticized Jaczko’s decision to halt the NRC’s work on the Yucca application, and most lawmakers think he’s one of two commissioners voting to keep Yucca Mountain alive.

Despite the presumptions, he’s been renominated by the Obama administration. But in the eyes of those watching the issue, that doesn’t matter much; what matters is how soon his nomination is voted on, and that’s something that depends on Reid.

The NRC can operate, and take votes, so long as there is a quorum of three commissioners. So if there’s a gap in Ostendorff’s term of service — and if he is in fact voting the way people presume — it creates an opening for Jaczko to force the other two participating commissioners to take a final vote, and strike a death blow to the Yucca mountain project.

Reid hasn’t said whether he’ll work to ensure a seamless transition into Ostendorff’s next term, and a spokesman for the senator would say only that Reid would “work with Republicans to schedule a vote to reconfirm Commissioner Ostendorff as soon as possible.”

Technically, the final deadline for the NRC’s complete review of the Yucca licensing process — even though it was supposed to be delivered in April — isn’t until late October of next year. But frustration is growing, especially in the GOP-led House, to act faster because it appears that all the work, and maybe even the vote on the Energy Department’s petition to withdraw, is done, and just waiting for Jaczko’s approval.

Jaczko has slow-walked the process of finalizing the vote on Yucca Mountain for fiscal reasons, he says, because there’s no budget for a licensing review this year.

But the money argument presents a bit of a Catch-22. So long as Reid is able to hold off GOP efforts to resuscitate Yucca, there won’t be money in the budget for the Yucca review. But the NRC does eventually have to reach a decision.

There’s also a procedural hang-up: The commission hasn’t affirmed the Yucca vote it has already taken.

Affirming a tie vote — if that’s what they’re dealing with — would effectively endorse the NRC’s preliminary decision that the administration doesn’t have the legal authority to withdraw the application.

But if a majority does not eventually vote to affirm the decision, any opinions the commissioners may have already expressed in a vote are no good — and Jaczko’s free to call another vote.

If that happens a few weeks from now, it almost goes without saying that the critics who have been accusing him of colluding with Reid and the Obama administration to stack a favorable vote will cry foul.

But, as Jaczko said in a statement released along with the inspector general’s report, these decisions aren’t politics; they’re just a part of the job.

“The closeout of the Yucca Mountain license review has been a complicated issue, with dedicated and experienced people holding different viewpoints,” Jaczko said. “All NRC chairmen have the responsibility to make difficult and sometimes controversial decisions.”

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