Senate Democrats' loss seen as lifeline for abandoned project

Promoters of the Yucca Mountain, Nev., nuclear waste repository left for dead by the Obama administration are celebrating Republicans' Senate takeover as a chance for resurrecting a project stymied by outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

"It's looking up for Yucca," said Lake Barrett, a former Department of Energy official turned energy consultant. "Yucca is going up in viability through this process; on the merits, it'll start to stand out."

Republicans keen to see the project proceed after a decadeslong impasse agree.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said he plans to work with his Senate counterparts on a nuclear waste strategy to ensure the repository is completed. Central to that push will be newly released reports -- with three more expected to be released by January 2015 -- showing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's finding that the site in Nevada would meet appropriate safety standards after its closure (E&ENews PM, Oct. 16).

"Safe and responsible long-term storage of nuclear waste will continue to be a priority for the committee next Congress, and we will continue to press the administration to finish its licensing of Yucca Mountain," Shimkus said in an email.


Reid has for decades made killing Yucca Mountain a top priority, saying just last month the site is "all through." But Reid's departure from the majority leader post saps his power to block the project, and Republican appropriators might now be able to fund the NRC's review of the government's stalled application for the repository.

But Yucca Mountain is not a pure partisan issue.

Kevin Book, a chief analyst at ClearView Energy Partners, noted the Senate mustered a 60-vote majority in 2002 -- including Democrats hoping to get nuclear waste out of their states -- over Reid's objections to a Yucca siting resolution (Greenwire, July 10, 2002).

To be sure, Reid continues to carry a lot of weight in the Obama White House. And NRC officials have said DOE isn't pursuing the repository license.

It's not clear the Obama administration would fold on its opposition to Yucca Mountain funding. And it could cost millions -- if not billions -- to back a federal review of DOE's application to build the repository about 100 miles outside Las Vegas.

There are also questions about the site itself. Former NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky wrote a recent op-ed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that outlines what he sees as major water problems with the Nevada site.

Sources also question whether the White House or Reid will prioritize the nomination and confirmation of a third Democrat to the NRC during the lame-duck session that starts next week. NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane has announced she'll step down at the end of this year. In addition to MacFarlane, the commission has two Democrats and two Republicans (E&E Daily, Nov. 6).

"If Obama is serious, and I believe he is serious, about all of the above, you can't [nominate] a hard-left person," Barrett said. "If he puts in a strong anti-nuclear person, it'll just add to the woes of nuclear being a [low-carbon power source]. What role Reid will choose to play is the $64,000 question."

New day for nuclear?

Election night also brought about big changes for the NRC on Capitol Hill.

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has called for Yucca Mountain to move forward, is almost certainly the next chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, a powerful panel that oversees the NRC.

Inhofe's ascent in the committee would end Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer's run as chairwoman. She had a prickly relationship with the NRC over its investigation into the now-shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant in her home state of California.

The shift is also seen as creating a more supportive environment for the nuclear industry.

Inhofe has repeatedly joined his Republican EPW colleagues in criticizing the NRC for over-regulating reactor operators.

During Senate hearings last year, Inhofe repeatedly said the nuclear industry is already weighed down by "new and unnecessary regulations" and questioned whether the NRC was rushing safety upgrades stemming from the 2011 nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant without considering differences between Japan and the United States (E&E Daily, Feb. 6, 2013).

Inhofe has also criticized the Obama administration's support for nuclear power.

In February 2012, Inhofe accused President Obama of taking credit for creating thousands of jobs at Southern Co.'s Vogtle plant in Georgia even though former Energy Secretary Steven Chu "was the one who said that nuclear power is the 'lesser of two evils' and the president himself designated a chairman of the NRC who opposes nuclear power" (E&ENews PM, Feb. 15, 2012).

But the Republican senator has also shown support for the agency, supporting the last two Obama nominees -- NRC General Counsel Stephen Burns, a Democrat, and Jeffery Baran, an aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) -- earlier this year.

Both commissioners have since been sworn in at the NRC.

Twitter: @HMNorthey | Email: hnorthey@eenews.net

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