JACZKO BEGINS SHUTDOWN OF YUCCA REVIEW ON DUBIOUS AUTHORITY
Using an interpretation of a section of the 2011 budget not yet adopted by Congress, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko has ordered his staff to begin a “close-down” of the review of the Department of Energy’s license application –- even though the Agency’s final decision on a license withdrawal request and Congressional appropriations are still up in the air.
The NRC staff is using pages 94 and 95 of Nuclear Regulations 1100, Volume 26, as a guideline: “Resources will support work to the orderly closure of the NRC’s licensing activities.” The paragraph goes on to refer to “archiving material, completion of some technological work, knowledge capture and management, and maintenance of certain electronic systems to support these efforts.”
In plain language, this means NRC is closing the books on DOE’s application to develop Yucca, originally filed in 2008. The Obama Administration asked for withdrawal of the application this March, saying Yucca was no longer needed. Several states are appealing the DOE’s action in court. In June, the Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB), a division of the NRC, also rejected the application withdrawal request, saying that DOE did not have authority to do so under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and had not given sufficient scientific justification for abandoning the project. The five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission has power of review over the ASLB recommendation but has not yet voted on the matter, which has been pending for 99 days. Reports from within the NRC suggest that Chairman Jaczko may not have the votes to reject the ASLB finding.
Jaczko has a particular motive for pushing on with the Yucca close down. A former staff member for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he was appointed NRC chairman – according to some reports – specifically for the purpose of closing down the Nevada facility in Reid’s home states. Reid is currently locked in a hard-fought effort to retain his Senate seat and proof that Yucca is actually shutting down would give a big boost to his campaign.
Jaczko’s authority in operating on a budget resolution that has not yet passed Congress is obviously a judgment call. “This may be not as dramatic as its sounds,” said David McIntyre, a spokesman for the NRC’s office of public affairs. “The agency staff has already been at work on the transition to a post-Yucca scenario for some months.” The public affairs office speaks only for the chairman and does not represent the other four commissioners.
“We just entered the new fiscal year on October 1,” said McIntyre. “The guidance given to the staff has been that with respect to high-level waste, it should follow the FY 2011 budget plan, even if the rest of the agency is operating on 2010 levels.” Congress has not yet adopted a 2011 budget but is operating on a continuing resolution for the 2010 version.
Are the steps now being taken to close the Yucca application reversible? “That’s not immediately clear,” said McIntyre.
The other four commissioners were not immediately available for comment.