A Chill Wind Off Yucca Mountain


Yucca Mountain is a rocky hatchet buried in the Earth, a hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas.  It pops up in the news from time to time, because it was to be the site of a central nuclear waste repository. 

After many years of political warfare over this proposal, and a good $15 billion in federal spending, the Obama Administration scuttled the Yucca Mountain project.  The House Energy and Commerce Committee has been investigating this decision, which the Government Accountability Office found to be based on “social and political opposition to a permanent repository, not technical issues.”  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was a powerful long-time foe of the Yucca project.

Several Department of Energy officials told the GAO “they had never seen such a large program with so much pressure to close down so quickly.”  It seems as if some very expensive efforts were swiftly made to ensure the project could not possibly be reconstituted.  There may not be a permanent tomb for nuclear waste beneath Yucca Mountain, but the earth has been thoroughly scorched and salted by the Department of Energy bureaucracy.

We may never find a geologically superior site for the repository, but the search for a more politically acceptable location is now under way… costing the taxpayers billions on top of the money already poured into the terminated Yucca project, and setting back construction by years, or perhaps decades.  Among other costs, the liability of keeping spent nuclear fuel in temporary storage will run us a cool $500 million per year, for every year beyond the originally planned 2020 opening date of Yucca Mountain.

House Energy and Commerce has some hard questions for the DOE and Nuclear Regulatory Commission about how this decision was made.  Among the documents gathered by the committee was some crucial material from an NRC whistleblower, who “challenged the legality of the closeout of the Yucca project,” as a Politico report put it. 

This source claimed the shutdown was “inconsistent with authorization and appropriations language for fiscal years 2010 and 2011,” and was a “violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.”  The politics of Harry Reid’s tough 2010 re-election campaign were specifically mentioned.

These developments led to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko appearing before a joint hearing of the subcommittees on Energy and Power, and Environment and the Economy.  During a question and answer session, ranking Democrat Henry Waxman decided to read the confidential emails in their entirety… and disclosed the full name of the whistleblower.  The documents in question were clearly marked “Not For Public Disclosure.”

This is more than a little odd, because Henry Waxman is no stranger to conducting House investigations.  He was the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for a decade, and chaired it for several years.  His chairmanship was not a low-key affair.

Waxman used to be very fond of people who stepped forward to report wrongdoing in their agencies, at great risk to their careers and reputations.  In 2007, he said of the federal Whistleblower Protection Act, “Protecting whistleblowers is a key component of government accountability.  Federal employees are on the inside. They can see where there is waste going on or if there is corruption going on. They can see the signals of incompetent management, and what we want is to enable them to let us know, those of us in Congress, about these kinds of problems.”

He was especially protective of confidential informants who might keep the House up to speed on national security matters.  “It is imperative that national security employees be protected against retribution,” Waxman said in 2007, “so they will not be afraid to report national security abuses to Members of Congress. When the intelligence is wrong, the consequences for our Nation can be immense.”  He was thinking of intelligence concerning nuclear weapons in Iraq, but the principle is equally applicable to the disposal of spent nuclear fuel in Nevada.

Even more to the point, Waxman was big on protecting “federal employees who report instances where federal scientific research is suppressed or distorted for political reasons” four years ago.

Republican John Shimkus went, if you’ll pardon the expression, nuclear over Waxman’s actions.  “What he did is unconscionable,” Shimkus said to reporters, suggesting that Waxman’s experience with the House Oversight committee “shows him how to destroy an investigation in oversight.”  He added that exposing the NRC whistleblower could “create a chilling effect on additional information.”

For his part, Waxman said in a statement that “Subcommittee Chairman Shimkus has made irresponsible accusations impugning the actions of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.  It is fair and appropriate for members to ask Mr. Jaczko about these accusations and the evidence bearing on them.”

Four years ago, under a different President, Waxman loudly declared that such evidence should be discussed without revealing the source.  That was before a Democrat sat in the White House, Harry Reid needed political cover to secure re-election, and a chill wind began blowing billions of taxpayer dollars off the side of Yucca Mountain.