Nuclear Dump Dominates NRC Chief’s First Trip to Congress

Nuclear-Waste Disposal Dominates NRC Chief’s Congress Testimony
Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Allison Macfarlane has said the Yucca Mountain project violated a criteria to put a dump in a geologically stable location. Source: U.S. Department of Energy via Bloomberg

The new chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Congress the U.S. needs a permanent site to store radioactive waste and declined to back Republican lawmakers who sought to restart the Yucca Mountain project.

While Allison Macfarlane reiterated that picking a site wasn’t an NRC task, she said cash remains available to evaluate Yucca. She estimated the U.S. has spent $8 billion on the project. House Republicans, who were asking about the slow pace of work, put the cost at $15 billion.

“No matter whether you go direct disposal of spent fuel or you recycle,” Macfarlane, in office for two weeks, said today at a hearing of two panels of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington, “you will need a final repository.”

Macfarlane’s predecessor, Gregory Jaczko, selectively provided colleagues with information to keep the Yucca project from advancing, the agency’s inspector general said in June 2011. The accusations, along with complaints from colleagues about Jaczko’s bullying and intimidation of staff, led to his resignation in May, a year before his term was to end.

U.S. plans for the waste site at Yucca, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, are opposed by lawmakers led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. Jaczko had worked for Reid as a science adviser.

Yucca Debate

The Obama administration in 2010 sought to withdraw Yucca’s license application, which an NRC panel turned down. The agency hasn’t issued a final decision. Republicans have said Obama’s plan to scrap Yucca lacked a “scientific or technical evaluation.”

Macfarlane, who holds a doctorate degree in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has said Yucca violated a criteria to put a dump in a geologically stable location. “Yucca Mountain is neither seismically nor volcanically stable,” she told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on March 2006.

Today, Macfarlane said that she did most of her research on Yucca during the 2000s, when an analysis of the region was limited. Asked by reporters whether her views might change based on new information, she replied, “always a possibility.”

“Right now there is no Yucca Mountain issue before us,” she also told reporters.

Representative Lois Capps, a California Democrat, questioned Macfarlane about cooling pools crowded with spent fuel. The chairman agreed such storage is “an issue” and said dry casks, an option to store used fuel, perform very well.

Georgia, California

Macfarlane often deferred to colleagues today on questions about construction at Southern Co.’s nuclear-power plant in Georgia, the performance of Entergy Corp.’s Palisades facility in Michigan and deficiencies with steam generator tubes at Edison International’s San Onofre nuclear plant in California.

In her prepared testimony, she emphasized her collegial and collaborative management style, drawing a contrast with her predecessor.

“I make this commitment to you today: I will devote all my energies to serving on the NRC with the attributes that I consider important to good governance -- openness, efficiency and transparency,” she said in her prepared remarks. “I will make a strong commitment to collegiality at all levels. An agency endowed with the public trust such as the NRC requires a respectful working environment to assure its integrity.”

‘Fantastic Job’

Her statement was welcomed by House Republicans including Fred Upton of Michigan and NRC employees. Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, who joined the NRC during the Bush administration, said the tone Macfarlane has set in two weeks is constructive and “most welcome.”

“She’s done a fanstastic job so far,” Commissioner William Magwood said after the hearing. “We’re very optimistic about the future.”

Republicans told Macfarlane to avoid distracting the power industry with too much regulation.

“The NRC and the industry had a full workload of safety improvements under development before the Fukushima accident occurred,” Representative John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, said. “The commission must be diligent about ensuring its licensees can focus on completing changes with greatest safety significance rather than being diverted onto other, less important changes simply to meet artificial timelines.”

Macfarlane told reporters that her main job is to ensure public health and safety and that she will issue as many regulations as it takes to achieve that target.

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