Nuclear Plant Cooling Towers in Byron, Illinois

On June 28, 2010, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board—a three-judge panel charged with conducting licensing hearings for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—rejected the Department of Energy’s motion to withdraw the license application to move forward with opening Yucca Mountain, the geologic repository meant to store our nation’s used nuclear fuel.

Before the board’s decision can become final, however, the NRC must vote on whether or not to accept it. The problem is that NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko refuses to allow the commission to consider the ASLB’s conclusions.

This is extraordinarily problematic. First, it threatens decades of scientific and technical research, the labor of thousands of dedicated workers, and $15 billion in taxpayers’ and electricity ratepayers’ money. Of course, wasting time, effort, and money is nothing new for the federal government.

But in this case, the stakes are much higher. The NRC’s lack of action is holding the future of American nuclear power hostage by keeping nuclear waste policy in a state of suspended animation. Absent a nuclear waste policy, there will be no nuclear renaissance in the U.S.

Beyond that, the chairman’s actions on Yucca seem to move the NRC squarely into the political arena. While no Washington institution can be devoid of politics altogether, the perception is that the NRC has traditionally operated apolitically. Doing so is critical for the credibility of the institution and to maintaining the public trust. Anything that undermines that credibility and trust, even if only by perception, must be resolved.

The facts are clear. The technical merit of the Yucca project is strong. The decision to halt work on the Yucca review is political. And even if the chairman’s intentions are pure, the perception is that politics are driving his actions.

NRC officials testified last week and strongly criticized Jaczko for succumbing to political pressures and not taking a scientifically objective approach to Yucca Mountain. Aby Mohseni, acting director for licensing and inspections at the NRC, said in prepared remarks for the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee:

Some senior managers contributed to the manipulation of the budget process and information to apparently make sure that the Yucca Mountain project would be left unfunded even if the license application was still before the NRC…. We were unprepared for the political pressures and manipulation of our scientific and licensing processes that would come with the appointment of Chairman Jaczko in 2009.

The criticism of Jaczko has been relentless. Earlier in June, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology released a comprehensive report that details Jaczko’s attempt to prematurely and unnecessarily shut down the Yucca licensing process. Another June report, this one from NRC Inspector General Hubert Bell, criticized the chairman for “strategically” holding information. The entire IG’s report is worth reading, because it highlights Jaczko’s manipulation of the budget process to close Yucca Mountain for good.

Regardless of whether we build new nuclear reactors or reprocess spent nuclear fuel, in every scenario, a geologic repository is necessary . The reality is that some of the byproducts of nuclear fission will last a long time. Therefore, the U.S. needs a place where it can be safely stored. If Yucca Mountain is technologically unable to fill those duties, then the NRC should say so. But all evidence suggests that Yucca is an appropriate place to store used nuclear fuel. The NRC’s job is to make that determination. Unfortunately, Jaczko has decided that the NRC should not do its job.