Chu retreats from Yucca Mountain

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By Roger Snodgrass

Republican senators on the energy committee bore down on Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in a hearing Thursday in Washington.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., returned to a topic from the presidential campaign as he interrogated Chu on nuclear power.

Chu’s prepared remarks to the committee on the administration’s plan to gain energy independence, mentioned “nuclear” only once at the end and that reference was omitted in his oral statement.

Instead, he emphasized weatherization and other energy efficiencies, stimulus-related investments in clean energy and job creation through tax credits and grants.

McCain asked if it were true that “nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is not an option, period.” He referred to earlier reports that the Obama administration planned to reduce funding for the geological repository under construction in Nevada.

Chu began to answer, “We have learned a lot more,” but was interrupted by McCain, who asked, “What is wrong with Yucca Mountain, Mr. Chu?”

“I think we can do a better job,” Chu responded, which led to a series of exchanges about what that meant for the used reactor fuel that is sitting at power plants around the country and what the administration’s intentions were.

“Boy if I were looking to advance a new nuclear facility, these comments from the administration that we are starting the process of finding a better solution would be very concerning,” Sen. Lisa Murkoski, R-Alaska, joined in. “I don’t know what we have done with our nuclear renaissance that Sen. Domenici worked so hard to advance.”

Chu also encountered doubts from Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who wondered what Chu planned to do with the high level nuclear waste that the Energy Department had committed to remove from his state.

“I can tell you this contract is very clear that it has to be moved,” said Risch. “Yucca Mountain not being used is a relatively new thing. When the administration made that decision, somebody must have had some thoughts about where it would go.”

Chu’s position was that he intended to study short-term storage alternatives and recycling technologies that would reduce the risk of proliferation.

“I want to seek the advice of some deeply knowledgeable people,” Chu said.

Committee chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced Chu during deliberations on an energy authorization bill. A second panel included a group of energy experts, who provided suggestions on the authorization bill the committee is drafting.

Bingaman followed up with Chu on a question that has not been put to rest, about whether the nuclear mission under the National Nuclear Security Administration and the scientific mission at the nuclear weapons labs should be separated.

The notion was floated earlier this year in a memo from the Office of Management and Budget to DOE, suggesting that the Defense Department might be a better home for nuclear weapons programs.

A newly released study by the Stimson Center, “Leveraging Science for Security: A Strategy for the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories in the 21st Century,” offers a another version of spinning nuclear weapons work out of DOE and into an independent Agency for National Security.

Affirming the traditional view within the complex, Chu emphasized the scientific basis for stockpile stewardship.

“Anything that threatens the science-based component of those labs, I would be very much opposed to,” Chu said.

The hearing was webcast and archived by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.