The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Yucca - Law = Expensive Black Hole

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Yesterday, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, visited and took questions regarding the sequester from the leadership at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) located in Rockville, MD.  The agency is charged with regulating civilian use of nuclear power and according to the Senator’s press release, the NRC had to take a $52 million cut to its FY13 budget due to sequestration.

He told the employees:

Not every agency has faced furloughs, but deep cuts have taken their toll on programs and the uncertainty has shaken federal employees in every corner of the government.  Sequestration is hurting real people and real families.  It’s harming our national security readiness and local economies.  It is irresponsible to let political dysfunction get in the way of ensuring for our national security and public safety.  We must replace sequestration with a realistic budget before facing even more dire cuts in the year ahead.”

If the Senator is looking for some suggestions on where he can get funding to replace what was taken away by the sequester, perhaps he could have a chat with the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the president about the millions of tax dollars they have wasted flouting the Nuclear Waste Policy Act for five years and defending their actions in court.

First a bit of background.  According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the federal government has spent more than $9 billion and 20 years studying potential sites as a repository for nuclear waste.  Currently, waste from nuclear power plants and other high-level radioactive waste is being stored in several sites around the country, which is expensive and dangerous.  After nine sites were studied between 1982 and 1986, the effort focused on Yucca Mountain, Nevada.  In 2002, President Bush and Congress approved Yucca Mountain as the site of a deep geologic repository for used nuclear fuel.

In 2008, the NRC announced, that it “has determined that the license application submitted by the Department of Energy - after two full decades of scientific study - is sufficiently complete, and that the NRC’s independent, technical evaluation can begin.”

Under orders from the NRC chairman and President Obama, the agency done nothing with the application for three years.  In July 2011, several organizations and states took the NRC to court because of the unreasonable delay.  In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals in DC sent a strong rebuke to the administration.  The court order says the “law provides that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ‘shall consider’ the Department of Energy’s license application to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain and ‘shall issue a final decision approving or disapproving’ the application within three years of its submission.”

Circuit Judge Kavanaugh, who wrote the opinion, also points out what has become routine for the Obama Administration, ignoring the law:

This case raises significant questions about the scope of the Executive’s authority to disregard federal statutes.  The case arises out of a longstanding dispute about nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.  The underlying policy debate is not our concern.  The policy is for Congress and the President to establish as they see fit in enacting statutes, and for the President and subordinate executive agencies (as well as relevant independent agencies such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to implement within statutory boundaries.  Our more modest task is to ensure, in justiciable cases, that agencies comply with the law as it has been set by Congress.

Here, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has continued to violate the law governing the Yucca Mountain licensing.

And George Will points out the political shenanigans with respect to Yucca Mountain in an August 21 column:

Judge A. Raymond Randolph’s concurring opinion said: “Former (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko orchestrated a systematic campaign of noncompliance.  Jaczko unilaterally ordered Commission staff to terminate the review process in October 2010; instructed staff to remove key findings from reports evaluating the Yucca Mountain site; and ignored the will of his fellow Commissioners.”

Jaczko resigned last year, leaving the NRC in demoralized disarray.  The New York Times reported “charges of mismanagement and verbal abuse of subordinates” and that all four of his fellow commissioners, two from each party, complained about Jaczko to the White House and told a congressional committee that (the Times reported) he “unprofessionally berated the agency’s professional staff and reduced female employees to tears with his comments.”

To be fair to him, he was put there to disrupt.  He was put there by Nevada’s Sen. Harry Reid (D), on whose staff he had served.

The costs to taxpayers, if not reversed, will reach into the billions if the NRC continues to disobey the law.  A GAO report, critical of the NRC states:

Terminating the Yucca Mountain repository program could bring benefits, such as allowing DOE to search for a more acceptable alternative, which could help avoid the costly delays experienced by Yucca Mountain.  However, there is no guarantee that a more acceptable or less costly alternative will be identified; termination could instead restart a costly and time-consuming process to find and develop an alternative permanent solution.  It would also likely prolong the need for interim storage of spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites, which would have financial and other impacts.  For example, the federal government bears part of the storage costs as a result of industry lawsuits over DOE’s failure to take custody of commercial spent nuclear fuel in 1998, as required.  These costs exceed $15.4 billion and could grow by an additional $500 million a year after 2020.

Sen. Reid, as does Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) and other Nevada elected officials, continue to try to defund the Yucca Mountain repository.  But the House Energy and Water Appropriations bill provides $25,000,000 in new funding for fiscal 2014 and includes bill language allowing Nuclear Waste Fund appropriations to be transferred to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in support of Yucca Mountain.  It does not fund the Obama Administration's request to move forward on the recommendations by the "Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future" that offers ways for Congress and the administration to work together to find another suitable location.

It's time to move forward on Yucca Mountain.  To do otherwise will be very costly, not only for the taxpayers, but for our nation's nuclear security as well.

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