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October 25, 2014

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Yucca gets its 15 minutes of fame

Let’s be honest. There was no real news at the Senate’s big Yucca Mountain hearing Wednesday.

No upturned scientific fact. No shocking political flip-flop. No government admission to forever alter the course of the debate.

But boy, was the theater compelling.

For the first time in years, Yucca Mountain climbed out of the shadows of Washington and into the klieg lights. Marquee names were falling all over themselves to talk about the best way to store nuclear waste. The issue that has been so important to Nevadans was suddenly hot again on the Hill.

Sure it was grandstanding by the Democratic presidential candidates. They saw media spots. Why none thought to speak so passionately about nuclear waste until now, with Nevada poised to hold an early presidential caucus, is obvious.

But sometimes soapboxes work: Promises were made that a Yucca Mountain dump would be killed. Federal witnesses squirmed in their seats. And some couldn’t help but see a new era of debate over storing the nation’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

Consider this loosely transcribed exchange, about an hour into the hearing, between committee member Sen. Hillary Clinton and Bush administration officials.

On the witness stand were Robert Meyers of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is in charge of determining how much cancer-causing radiation Nevadans can be exposed to from the nuclear waste; Edward Sproat, the project manager at the Energy Department, which is designing the repository; and a representative of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will ultimately decide whether the dump can be licensed. The radiation standards have been in limbo for a year, with no indication of when they will be released to the public.

Clinton: When will EPA finalize the radiation standards?

Meyers: In my written testimony I indicated that it is our hope to get that done soon.

Clinton: And what does “soon” mean?

Meyers: “Soon” means that it will probably be in the normal medium term ... It’s our intention to continue work on this and get it done, soon.

Clinton: That’s very enlightening, Mr. Meyers, I must confess. (The crowd awakens with chuckles. The senator smiles diplomatically.) Will “soon” be before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has to act?

Meyers: We are focusing on the process, Sen. Clinton, and completing our process.

Clinton: Well that’s the problem. Because if the standard is not finished soon ... then the NRC will be acting without the standards. Do you agree with that?

Meyers: That could be hypothetically correct.

Clinton: Mr. Sproat, why is the Department of Energy rushing to finalize the license application by June of next year in the absence of final EPA standards?

Sproat: Good question, Senator. (He explains that while he awaits the data, he’s estimating there won’t be much cancer-causing radiation from Yucca Mountain — about as much as you get from a cross-country airplane ride.)

Clinton: What I’m picking up is that there’s a disagreement here. And that DOE is going full-fledged ahead, and EPA is dragging its feet because EPA doesn’t want to be on the record of either contradicting DOE or having to once again mangle science in order to get some preconceived outcome that will suit those who wish to move forward on this.

That’s the kind of talk you can hear any day of the week from Nevada officials fighting a Yucca repository. That’s not what you typically hear in Washington.

Clinton had called for the hearing and stole the stage, vowing to kill the dump at Yucca. Not to be outdone, fellow presidential hopefuls John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama countered Clinton’s brash vote-getting campaign with their own.

Obama dashed off a letter saying the time for new alternatives to Yucca is now. His campaign offered up a former energy secretary to vouch for him. Edwards reiterated his opposition.

The Republican National Committee was at the ready, poised to offer a comment if needed.

A cynic would say this was nothing more than Yucca Mountain’s 15 minutes of fame on the campaign trail. An optimist would counter that it signaled the beginning of a new era when a Yucca repository no longer gets a pass.

Maybe it was a little of both.

One thing is certain: After past Yucca Mountain hearings, no matter how battered and bruised the project was after disclosures of cost overruns or delays, the Republicans in Congress almost always picked up the pieces and promised that Yucca would survive.

After Wednesday’s hearing, the momentum seemed to teeter in the other direction.

“Observation from the hearing today: It was a different tone,” Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada said. Exhibit A: When he testified that Yucca Mountain was dead, no one disagreed with him.

Ensign said he passed along that sentiment during his routine Republican leadership meeting with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both supporters of the nuclear industry, which needs a place to store its waste.

He said he made a point of talking about how much trouble Yucca Mountain is in. “I talked about it’s time to start exploring other options.”

Ensign, in a comment sure to cause head shakes among some of his Republican colleagues, added: “The fact the Democrats held this hearing is a very positive move in trying to get other alternatives on the table.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada by day’s end waxed that Clinton did very well. “I admire and respect her outspokenness on this issue,” he said.

So will Congress suddenly drop Yucca and perhaps embrace Reid and Ensign’s bill to store waste where it now sits at nuclear power plants across the nation?

Probably not this week.

Sun reporter Michael J. Mishak contributed to this story.

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