Officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to defend their budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2015 this week, putting on display one of the major problems with nuclear waste management in the past five years.
According to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, as amended, the federal government was to begin collecting nuclear waste by 1998 in a national repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. However, the Obama Administration unilaterally decided that Yucca Mountain was not a viable option, even though there has yet to be a complete evaluation of the site by the NRC.
The Department of Energy (DOE) developed a new “plan” for nuclear waste disposal without the direction of the law or Congress, causing a federal court last August to find the DOE plan inconsistent with the law and to require the NRC to continue the license review of the Yucca Mountain repository.
However, the NRC did not ask Congress for additional funds to finish the licensing application on Yucca Mountain in its FY 2015 budget. Such an oversight is incredible considering the NRC has maintained that it has only enough funds to finish the safety evaluation and environmental aspects of the licensing request, while the court made clear that the law requires more than simply finishing the safety evaluation report.
To add to the circus, the NRC did see fit to ask Congress for money to begin work on the unauthorized DOE plan. When asked by the committee yesterday if she knew that Congress had not authorized the NRC to implement the DOE’s alternative plan, NRC commissioner Allison MacFarlane said she was not aware, an incredible statement considering she earlier referenced the chapter, part, subpart, and rule number of the U.S. Code requiring the NRC to review the licensing requirements of a repository.
Certainly blame for the executive branch’s failure to execute the law doesn’t rest entirely on the NRC. But the Obama Administration’s consistent lack of leadership on the issue is particularly perplexing considering what the Administration is attempting to accomplish elsewhere in the energy sector. With passed and proposed regulations that effectively stop the use of coal for inexpensive baseload electricity, the Administration (and other allies, such as former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and Obama advisor Carol Browner) is increasingly looking to nuclear to provide reliable, emissions-free power.
Unless waste management can be addressed, the commercial nuclear industry has nowhere to grow. But the Obama Administration has only thrust uncertainty on top of the uncompetitive regulatory structure the industry operates under by not faithfully executing the law as it pertains to Yucca Mountain.