This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Someone at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission got it right – just not the right someone.
The commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled last week that the Obama administration’s attempt to pull the plug on a nuclear waste dump in Nevada amounts to an illegal end-run.
A day later, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself appealed the decision.
The judges on the three-member safety and licensing board look to what the law allows. As for the political appointees on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the five-member panel charged with making the final call?
Well, you could say they have other concerns – concerns that might just dovetail with those of the president who nominated them, a president who campaigned on killing plans to to open a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
Commissioners will be pressed to find fault with the legal panel’s decision. The law is clear: Congress picks the site, and the Energy Department prepares and submits the paperwork. Allowing Energy to withdraw its application now would be permitting the agency to “single-handedly derail the legislated decision-making process,” the NRC judges said.
Even if it were the Energy Department’s call to make, the agency has undermined its own case by conceding that its application is not flawed nor the Yucca site unsafe.
But siting a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain has ceased to be a question of law, science or engineering. These days, it’s strictly political – a naked attempt to get the president’s chief Senate ally re-elected.
Twenty-three years have passed since Congress settled on Yucca after an exhaustive search of other sites, including the Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington. About $10 billion has been spent on Yucca Mountain so far, and nothing suggests it still isn’t the best spot. Yet Energy Secretary Steven Chu has sent a blue-ribbon panel touring the country in search of alternatives; it stops next week at Hanford.
The nation’s electricity customers – who have been taxed for more than 20 years to finance a repository for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and Cold War nuclear waste – should pay attention to what happens next at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
So too should Northwesterners who are concerned about the highly radioactive tank wastes that sit near the Columbia River at Hanford – not to mention the nearby spent nuclear fuel rods awaiting long-term storage.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should uphold the judges’ decision. But this is, after all, an election year.