New House probe of Obama: Decision to dump Yucca site

Workers stand by a train at the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste disposal site in June 25, 2002.
Workers stand by a train at the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste disposal site in June 25, 2002. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from states stuck with tons of radioactive materials left over from the Cold War Friday cheered a House of Representatives panel's decision to investigate the Obama administration's scrapping of a central nuclear waste dump in Nevada.

Taxpayers have spent $12 billion to develop the Yucca Mountain site since Congress passed a 1987 law designating it as the storage site for waste from the nation's 104 commercial reactors and from 17 reactors at nuclear weapon complexes and research facilities.

Lawmakers from South Carolina and Washington, home to nuclear weapons complexes with tons of stranded waste, welcomed the new House probe into halting development of the repository under Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

"South Carolina has unfairly carried the burden for storing nuclear material for decades," said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., whose district is home to the Savannah River Site weapons complex.

"I applaud the Energy and Commerce Committee for shining light on this important issue, and I hope their hearings will add even more pressure on the Obama administration to open Yucca Mountain," Duncan said.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., whose district includes the Hanford nuclear reservation, said President Barack Obama violated the 1987 law by eliminating funding for developing the Yucca repository from his last two budget proposals.

"Congress has a very legitimate oversight of the executive branch if we think he is acting outside the law," Hastings said. "If any president, I don't care whether a Democrat or a Republican, tries to do something outside the law, that concerns me."

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., criticized the House probe as "a political witch hunt" and dismissed it as "one more effort to turn Nevada into a nuclear waste dump."

Washington and South Carolina have sued Obama for shuttering the Yucca site.

The two states' lawyers argued their case last week before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

In a related proceeding, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is weighing Energy Secretary Steven Chu's bid to withdraw the federal government's application for building the Yucca repository in deep underground tunnels.

Republicans have charged that Obama halted work on Yucca to help Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Reid won re-election in November partly by trumpeting his role in stopping Yucca, which most Nevadans oppose.

"The decision needs to be investigated because the president is closing this site in Nevada with no compelling reason brought to Congress," said Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C. "It reeks of politics."

Under questioning by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Peter Lyons, the Energy Department's assistant secretary for nuclear energy, acknowledged at a Senate appropriations hearing Wednesday that intense opposition from Nevadans played a role in Obama's decision. Obama won the state in 2008, and it may become a battleground for his re-election next year.

"Yucca Mountain is not a workable solution because I believe that the equation needs both a technical and a local support," Lyons said. "As a resident of Nevada for many years, I saw the lack of local support."

Republican Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and John Shimkus of Illinois, a committee member, on Thursday sent Chu a letter seeking documents tied to his request to withdraw the Yucca license from the NRC.

Upton and Shimkus said last month's earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which severely damaged a coastal nuclear plant with six reactors, make it essential for the U.S. government to dispose of waste now in temporary storage at dozens of sites around the country.

"The tragic events in Japan underscore the urgent need for the United States to pursue a coherent nuclear policy to safely and permanently store spent nuclear fuel," Upton and Shimkus said in a joint statement. "The administration's move to shutter Yucca raises serious red flags."

Katinka Podmaniczky, an Energy Department spokeswoman, said Friday that the agency would cooperate with the House probe.

"We will, of course, work with the committee as it performs its oversight role," she said.


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