Insisting on Yucca Mountain won't fix nuclear waste problem, says Hamilton

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The fact of Yucca Mountain still standing empty of nuclear waste is a testament to the need for a new approach to siting permanent nuclear waste disposal facilities, said a co-chair of a blue ribbon commission chartered to examine radioactive waste policy.

"If you stand around and insist on Yucca, Yucca, Yucca, which people have been insisting on for a long, long time but have not been able to pull it off, we think the result of that is an impasse, a failure to solve the problem," said former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton. He testified Feb. 1 before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment and the economy.

The commission's final report, released on Jan. 26, makes no specific recommendations regarding the Yucca facility, but does urge a new consent-based approach under which communities volunteer or are induced to accept the presence of a waste disposal or storage facility.

"We have had over a period of years a top-down forced solution to the problem and it has not worked," Hamilton said. The federal government has spent approximately $15 billion on the Yucca Mountain effort since Congress in effect selected it in 1987 as the nation's only waste disposal site. The Obama administration withdrew in 2009 the Yucca Mountain license application from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (it's legally unclear whether it can do so) and halted funding for it.

The report references an Energy Department-led effort in near Carlsbad, N.M. called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that stores waste from past nuclear weapons programs as an example of what a consensus-based approach would be like. Although the state of New Mexico filed suit twice to stymie the project, the commission report says federal legislation approved in 1992 that required the involvement of the Environmental Protection Agency in certifying the WIPP facility and gave the state authority to issue the permit for the facility accept hazardous waste, as well as a prohibition against any high-level waste at the site, helped turn around opposition.

"There are a lot of advantages to accepting waste," Hamilton said. "You create a lot of jobs in a community--that's the New Mexico experience."

Subcommittee chairman John Shimkus (R-Il.) assigned blame for the current state of Yucca Mountain to President Obama and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, stating that both have "failed to comply with the law."

"I would suggest a solution would be for the administration to follow the law as written," Shimkus said, adding that "I would reject the premise that we have failed."

The federal government has the consent of locals around Yucca Mountain, Shimkus said, pointing to the fact that the mountain is surrounded by federally-owned land. "We're the locals. We own the land," he said.

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimonies and webcast available)

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