The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development held a hearing on March 31 to examine the FY 2012 budget requests for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy. The hearing focused largely on the agencies’ responses to the nuclear crisis in Japan, the safety of the U.S. nuclear industry, and myriad technical, noncontroversial issues. However, when the third round of questions from Members turned to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko and Acting Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons found themselves facing fierce bipartisan ire over the Obama Administration’s handling of its decision to cancel development of the Yucca Mountain site.
For the first hour and three quarters, Members questioned the witnesses on a wide variety of issues. One of the persistent themes was the ongoing situation at Japan’s Fukushima reactors in the wake of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami that crippled the power supply to the reactors’ cooling systems.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), acting as chairman of the hearing, asked what activities the NRC and DOE’s are undertaking to assist the Japanese activities to bring the reactors under control. Lyons said that Idaho National Laboratory had activated a technical response team and was coordinating six national labs to provide their expertise. Jaczko said that NRC staff have been supporting the U.S. embassy in Japan as well as their Japanese colleagues with any information and analysis requested of them.
Additionally, the NRC has a task force conducting a two-stage review to see if the Japanese disaster reveals any improvements that may be needed to the safety of reactors in the U.S. The first stage will be completed in 90 days and will describe any immediate upgrades necessary. The second, more comprehensive, stage of the review will be completed in six months.
Simpson also wanted to know whether, because the FY 2012 budget request was submitted before the accident in Japan, the agencies would be seeking supplemental appropriations to handle the costs of their work on this issue. Both witnesses said that currently they have adequate resources to cover the workload.
Rep. Ed Pastor (D-AZ), acting as Ranking Member for this hearing, asked Jaczko a series of questions seeking reassurance that the U.S. nuclear industry is safe without the additional review currently being conducted. Pastor expressed concern that current safety models should have already taken into account serious natural disasters like earthquakes. Jaczko assured him that this is standard practice, but that the review is designed to ensure that the failure at the Fukushima reactors is used as a learning experience and opportunity to further improve the safety of U.S. nuclear plants. Jaczko hastened to add that he has a great deal of confidence in current safety procedures, but that conducting this review is the prudent course to ensure that reactors are as safe as possible.
Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT) and Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-MS) both sought assurance that the NRC’s task force reviewing the crisis in Japan would not divert resources or slow down the licensing process for new nuclear facilities in the U.S. Jaczko replied that, while the task force is completing its work, the licensing process will go forward at its usual pace. However, he cautioned that he did not want to prejudge the work of the task force, and thus could not comment on whether the licensing process would change once the review reaches its conclusions.
Several Members also questioned DOE’s program to develop Small Modular Reactors (SMR), which Lyons said in his opening statement, “represent a tremendous opportunity for the United States to regain leadership in the nuclear realm.” Simpson asked what advantages they presented over traditional reactors. Lyons replied that the smaller size could allow them to be manufactured in a factory setting rather than on site, allowing greater economic efficiency. Additionally, they could take advantage of more passive safety features and would not require the sort of massive cooling apparatus that large reactors need. Finally, the smaller size and lower cost could make nuclear power an attractive option for smaller utilities that do not have the capital or the demand for a large-scale reactor.
When the questioning finally turned to Yucca Mountain after nearly two hours, the tone of the hearing changed dramatically and instantaneously. Simpson said that, in his view, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act designated Yucca Mountain as the permanent nuclear waste repository and asked Lyons whether DOE was going to propose legislation to amend the Act. Lyons replied that DOE’s general counsel had thoroughly reviewed the case and concluded that DOE was within its legal framework in withdrawing its license application from the NRC.
Simpson countered, charging that the decision to withdraw the license application was a political maneuver outside the bounds of the law. He then shifted his focus to Jaczko, questioning reports that Jaczko directed Commission staff to halt work on DOE’s license application. Simpson charged that this was an overstepping of Jaczko’s authority and expressed concern that the NRC, which Simpson said is supposed to function as an independent agency, is becoming politicized and ignoring the policy set by Congress and signed into law. Jaczko replied that he believed he acted within the bounds of his authority as chairman but would not comment further because the issue is under adjudication.
In a show of bipartisan unity, Pastor also expressed concern that the agencies may be ignoring the federal statutes governing nuclear waste policy. He suggested that there will continue to be pushback from both Republicans and Democrats who have concerns about the Obama Administration’s handling of Yucca Mountain and the sizeable public investment that will have been wasted if Yucca Mountain is cancelled.
In related news, Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee called on the NRC to release Volume III of its Safety Evaluation Report Related to Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Wastes in a Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. This is the report Jaczko allegedly ordered staff to halt work on. Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have also asked both Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Jaczko to release information related to the cancelation of Yucca Mountain.