WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans on Tuesday challenged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's inspector general over his finding last week that the NRC's chairman did nothing illegal in his role in ending plans for a dump for highly radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Inspector General Hubert T. Bell said Tuesday that the chairman, Gregory Jaczko, had been wrong to mislead fellow commissioners. But he said that the law gave the chairman special duties, and that Jaczko was acting on the basis of his interpretation of this authority.
The drama over Jaczko's role is the latest twist in the repeatedly delayed search for a place to store nuclear waste safely for a million years. Highly radioactive waste has been building up in temporary storage at the nation's nuclear power plants at a cost to taxpayers of more than $15 billion.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that held Tuesday's hearing, said Jaczko was guilty of "outright malfeasance" because he misled fellow commissioners and senior staff. Shimkus noted that Bell's report last week, the result of a seven-month investigation, had found that Jaczko didn't fully explain to all the commissioners that a budget cutback would mean ending consideration of the Nevada site.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, told Bell he disagreed with the inspector general's finding that Jaczko didn't violate the law.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the committee's chairman, alleged that Jaczko "devised a complex, calculated strategy to kill the license application without consideration by the commission."
President Barack Obama appointed Jaczko the chairman of the NRC in 2009. Jaczko had been an aide to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who opposed putting the dump in his state.
Obama, who said in his 2008 presidential campaign that he'd cancel the Nevada repository, didn't fund it in his 2011 budget request.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said Jaczko "did what any permitting office would do when a building plan is canceled. He stopped spending money processing the permit."
Markey said that over the decades, other powerful members of Congress also had insisted that their states not get the waste dump. He said the Nevada site was in an active earthquake zone and that the waste couldn't be isolated there.
The Department of Energy's motion last year to end work on Yucca Mountain said that scientific and engineering knowledge had advanced since the site was proposed 20 years ago. However, the motion didn't cite technical or safety problems. The agency said a decision on where to put the waste should be based on new scientific knowledge and support from the people who lived there.
The inspector general's report looked only at Jaczko's role in decision-making, and not at whether the administration was wrong to pull back from the Nevada site.
Bell said it was Jaczko's prerogative as chairman to direct the budget process. He added, however, that previous chairmen were "more open and collaborative."
Joseph McMillan, the assistant inspector general for investigations at the NRC, acknowledged that the law required the commission's chairmen to keep other commissioners fully informed. He went as far as to say of Jaczko's behavior: "One could draw the conclusion that it's opposite the intent of the statute."
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