Nuclear Regulatory Commission Judges Question Staff’s Review of Nuclear Waste Dump

 Sun editorial:

A critical look at Yucca?


April 8, 2009

A panel of judges from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a three-day hearing last week on objections to the Energy Department’s application to build a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The judges are scheduled to decide who can challenge the government’s plan during licensing hearings and what they can raise as objections. There have been 320 objections filed by 14 groups. The fact that President Barack Obama is against the Yucca Mountain plan went virtually unnoticed.


As Alexandra Berzon reported last week, Energy Department attorneys argued that none of the objections should be heard. The judges took a critical view of that argument. They said it seemed disingenuous, for example, that the Energy Department contested all of Nevada’s 229 objections.

They also homed in on the NRC’s staff. The agency is supposed to be the impartial arbiter in reviewing proposed nuclear projects, but the judges found it odd that the NRC agreed with the Energy Department on all but 19 of Nevada’s objections. Judge Michael Farrar said it appeared as though NRC members applied a higher threshold to Yucca Mountain protests than they had in past commission cases.

Judge Alan Rosenthal said that if he and the other judges agree that a “significant number of the Nevada contentions are admissible ... both DOE and the NRC staff will have lost credibility.”

Rosenthal said that would leave the impression that the NRC “is not a disinterested participant in the licensing process but, rather, a spear carrier for the DOE.”

The judges hit the nail on the head. For years the Energy Department has been enabled in its quest to make a terrible idea work by the NRC and countless politicians who have toed the nuclear industry’s line. They have ignored the obvious scientific obstacles to the plan to haul 77,000 tons of nuclear waste across the country and stuff it into a volcanic ridge.

It is good to see the NRC judges thinking critically about the project. If they continue, they will see what a foolish plan it really is.