Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington is calling for the completion of a stalled review of the abandoned Yucca Mountain, Nev., nuclear waste project in what some industry sources say shows the waning power of the project's fiercest foe, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
With the nation's largest nuclear waste site, Hanford, in her home state, Murray yesterday sent a letter to Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane praising the NRC for resuming its safety review of Yucca, a project the White House has deemed unworkable and Reid has vowed to kill.
Rejecting the political guesswork, Sean Coit, a spokesman for Murray, said her inquiry didn't signify any change in Reid's position.
In her letter, Murray peppered Macfarlane with questions about the regulatory process moving forward, and whether the NRC had enough funds and authority to complete safety reviews, consider widespread comments on the site and update an environmental impact statement.
For the past three decades, she said, independent studies have found Yucca Mountain to be the "nation's best option" for storing high-level waste, and Congress and previous administrations have voted for, funded and supported pursuing the option.
"With countless work hours to date spent by the NRC on the licensing application and billions of dollars spent at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and at nuclear waste sites across the country in efforts to treat and package nuclear waste that would be sent to Yucca Mountain, it is imperative ... [the] licensing application is thoroughly considered by the NRC," Murray wrote.
The NRC's release of the third volume of a safety report for Yucca Mountain in October, which found the repository would be "safe" for humans and the environment once closed, represented a "significant step forward" for the project and reaffirms the Nevada site is "the right solution for the United States," Murray wrote (E&ENews PM, Oct. 16).
The commission ordered its staff last year to complete the safety reports after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the agency to "promptly" continue a licensing process using remaining project funds, including $11.1 million of unobligated funds and $2.5 million of obligated, unexpended funds. The NRC said it's expecting to publish three additional volumes touching on safety before closure, programmatic requirements and license specifications by January 2015.
Murray asked whether the NRC would move forward with reviewing Yucca Mountain even if the Energy Department pulled its application.
The senator has been quiet about the project since she blasted former Energy Secretary Steven Chu in 2010 for stepping away from Yucca Mountain, accusing DOE of providing no scientific basis for doing so.
Murray also said then that the national decision for where to store hot waste should be based on "science and the moral responsibility" and that the government cannot "unilaterally take one site out of the equation."
Her break comes as Reid prepares to leave the top perch in the Senate. Reid is the best-known critic of the site and has called dumping waste there a "failed policy," noting that the government pulled its support for the repository five years ago.
Reid has also said he will do "everything within his power" to ensure the project is never resurrected and "doesn't receive another dime."
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