NRC Scientists Reveal Unprecedented Dysfunction Among Commission's Leadership

June 24, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC - The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, chaired by Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), held a hearing today with staff from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission responsible for the scientific and technical evaluation and review of DOE's Yucca Mountain license application.

The hearing follows last week's release of the NRC Inspector General report that exposed gross manipulation on behalf of the agency's leadership to influence the career staff's review process.  The staff testimony reaffirmed the findings of the IG report, citing specific instances of how their decades of work had been deliberately suppressed.

Witnesses spoke at length about senior management's efforts to obstruct the publication of the Technical Evaluation Report (TER) on Yucca Mountain. In addition, witnesses expressed frustrations over the Chairman's decision to terminate their work on the third volume of the Safety Evaluation Report (SER), the most important technical evaluation of whether the DOE application meets regulatory requirements.

"It was pointed out to him at this time that allowing the staff to finish the SER volumes would be by far the most efficient and effective use of Nuclear Waste Fund resources and at the same time would give the Nation the benefit of an independent regulator's evaluation of the Yucca Mountain application.  He made it clear that, although he could choose that path, he considered that it would be "˜more political' to publish the SER volumes with regulatory findings than to issue them as TERs devoid of such findings," said N. King Stablein, Branch Chief at the NRC's Division of High-Level Waste Repository Safety (HLWRS). "To be denied the opportunity to finish the SER, the culmination of those years of prelicensing and licensing activity, because of what appeared to be the arbitrary decision of one individual, was wrenching.  The staff was not aware of any substantive discussion and airing of issues at the Commission level, as would be expected for a decision of this magnitude regarding a major program that has existed for almost 30 years."

The witnesses also cited serious concerns about the integrity of the Chairman and the direction of the agency under his leadership. Aby Mosheni, Acting Director at the NRC's Division of High-Level Waste Repository Safety, expressed, "We were unprepared for the political pressures and manipulation of our scientific and licensing processes that would come with the appointment of Chairman Jaczko in 2009.   We believe that any political manipulation of the scientific and licensing process is an assault on the responsibility to the NRC mandated by Congress." Mosheni went on to say, "Apparently, the NRC's senior leadership is ineffective in upholding the integrity of this Agency.  Politics are influencing some of the NRC's staff's work.  The question is could politics at some point affect the staff's technical and regulatory findings and decisions?  This is not where an independent Safety organization should be."

The testimony from NRC staff members presents more compelling evidence of the administration's political motivations directing the decision to shut down development of the nation's only permanent nuclear waste repository.

"The work NRC staff has put into the Yucca Mountain license application has been by all evidence world class, and we should expect no less from NRC.  Now that very staff fears its work has been caught up in a dysfunctional agency which is threatening their ability to maintain public trust in the work they produce," said Chairman Shimkus. "We should not forget how much money and human effort has gone into development of this project.  To date we have spent $15 billion, probably half a billion dollars alone by NRC.   The American rate payer and taxpayer are owed something for this effort, yet that effort risks getting swept away by the political agenda of this administration and the NRC chairman."

Ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee Henry Waxman (D-CA) injected partisan politics into today's hearing, accusing the majority of a having a "myopic focus" on Yucca Mountain despite his Democratic colleagues' concerns over the administration's mismanagement of the project. Waxman argued the panel's hearings on this issue are diverting attention from other nuclear energy issues. Yet, legislative history suggests Yucca Mountain has been and remains a critical issue for our nation's public safety and energy future. Over the past 20 years, Congress has voted numerous times in support of Yucca Mountain with overwhelming bipartisan support.
 
"We must examine these questions under a microscope to finally piece together the complete picture of what's wrong at the NRC and what can be done to fix it," stated Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee Fred Upton (R-MI). "We must remove any political interference and restore the "˜independence' to this critical independent agency. Our nuclear future and our national security hang in the balance. The American people deserve better.

BACKGROUND: Prior to the Obama administration's termination, the Yucca project was nearing the finish line for full construction authorization with the Energy Department's submission of a license application in June 2008.  Federal law requires NRC to complete license review within four years at the latest. The GAO estimates that nearly $15 billion has been spent on research surrounding the Yucca Mountain repository since 1983, $9.5 billion of which has been directly collected from the public's electric bills.
 
During a recent hearing, witnesses revealed that Energy Secretary Steven Chu simply ignored the technical components of the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository when withdrawing the project's license application. A recent Government Accountability Office report also found "social and political opposition to a permanent repository, not technical issues, is the key obstacle."  GAO also found termination will add to taxpayer burdens, by increasing the substantial liability costs for DOE's failure to take custody of spent nuclear fuel. These costs presently amount to $15.4 billion if Yucca were to open as planned in 2020 and will increase by an estimated $500 million for each year delay after that.

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