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November 23, 2014

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Boos as Obama taps Yucca supporter

Senators urged to reject choice for nuclear commission

Yucca Mountain

The U.S. Energy Department plans to store spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, an extinct volcano about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Anti-nuclear groups are fighting the Obama administration’s nomination of a pro-Yucca Mountain nuclear industry insider to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

On Oct. 9, President Barack Obama nominated Bill Magwood to the commission, which is charged with regulating and licensing all civilian use of nuclear materials, including the stalled nuclear waste dump proposed for 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Critics of the choice say Magwood has a history of nuclear boosterism that is incompatible with the role of a regulator. He also has repeatedly been quoted as saying Yucca Mountain is the best solution to the nation’s nuclear waste storage issues, most recently in May.

Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Obama say their fellow Yucca Mountain opponents need not worry, that Magwood’s a changed man who won’t go against the administration’s vow to prevent the mountain near the California-Nevada border from becoming the storage site for the nation’s most radioactive material.

That’s not enough assurance for many of the opponents, however.

“There are a lot of people who wish someone else would have been nominated,” said Judy Treichel, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, a consortium of anti-Yucca groups.

The Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, sent a letter Oct. 14 to the Senate committee that will oversee Magwood’s November confirmation hearing, urging the senators to reject him.

Representatives of about 100 anti-nuclear or anti-Yucca organizations, including Treichel’s, have signed on to a petition making similar demands.

Nevada’s other senator is noncommittal for the time being. Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for Republican Sen. John Ensign, said Ensign doesn’t know enough about Magwood yet. Ensign has “a long history of supporting nominees who oppose Yucca Mountain” and wants to talk to Magwood about the issue before deciding whether to support the nomination, Fisher said.

Bruce Breslow, executive director of Gov. Jim Gibbons’ Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said he is reserving judgment until he hears Magwood’s confirmation hearing testimony.

“They absolutely need to ask him about his positions on Yucca. He needs to address that,” Breslow said. “And they should ask about any comments he’s made about the nuclear industry, either pro or con.”

Magwood worked for years at the Energy Department and the Office of Nuclear Energy, rising to be the top government nuclear technology official and advancing the agencies’ plans for Yucca Mountain.

But the White House and Reid’s office on Tuesday said Magwood had changed his mind on Yucca. Reid spokesman Jon Summers said Magwood had personally assured the senator that he would not pursue the Yucca dump.

White House spokesman Adam Abrams said, “Bill Magwood recognizes the Obama administration’s clearly stated policy that Yucca Mountain is not an option for storage of nuclear waste. He is committed to the administration’s goal of developing a responsible, long-term solution to our nuclear waste storage needs.”

Magwood did not return the Sun’s calls for comment.

Prior to his government work, Magwood was employed by the Edison Electric Institute, an association of shareholder-owned electric companies, and Westinghouse Electric Corporation, a nuclear technology company with permits for new technology currently pending before the Commission.

Breslow said just because somebody has industry experience, that doesn’t mean he’ll be a bad regulator. There are only three sources for commissioners: industry, academia and government, so it’s difficult to find a qualified commissioner without some perceived conflict of interest. But that perception of a conflict is toughest to beat when you’ve been working in the industry you’re charged with regulating, he said.

“The most important quality I look for in a good regulator is fairness — the ability to set aside your friends and business influences and make an objective decision based on facts and not relationships,” Breslow said. “Certainly the president and members of the president’s inner circles would have vetted these issues out with Mr. Magwood before his nomination, so I’m sure he’ll do the best he can to avoid a conflict.”

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