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New Nuclear Waste Sites at Issue for NRC Pick

The Senate could take up the nomination of Allison Macfarlane to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as soon as this month, but concerns over whether her opposition to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository would put other sites back in play could complicate her nomination.

Senators are sizing up Macfarlane, a geologist at George Mason University, who has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the force behind the decades-long effort to kill the Yucca project in Nevada. The White House has also backed Reid in his efforts.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to hold a hearing on Macfarlane and GOP NRC nominee Kristine Svinicki  on June 13.

In a 2009 interview in Technology Review magazine, which is published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Macfarlane supported nuclear power and said an alternative to Yucca is needed. She pronounced Yucca geologically unsound.

“There are lots [of potential sites], all over the country,” she said. But she declined to name any particular candidates.

“I haven’t studied anything in detail, and I don’t want to get anybody upset,” Macfarlane said. “But we have a huge country, and there are many locations. One thought, though, is that sites could be in locations where people already have a comfort level with nuclear power, which is how the Swedes and Finns have been successful.”

Macfarlane could not be reached for comment. But she was chosen in part because her views do not depart dramatically from outgoing NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko. Still, the process of installing a new chairman is sure to reopen old debates over how to store the spent nuclear waste that has been piling up at reactors around the country.

Before Yucca was designated as the nation’s repository in 1987, it was on a short list with two other sites: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington state and Deaf Smith County, Texas.

“I can see no scenario where that waste will come to Washington state,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said when asked whether Macfarlane’s nomination was a concern.

A Murray aide said she wants to wait for the hearing before making any judgment.

“We’re not having it,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said.

The 586-square-mile Hanford site is home to nine decommissioned nuclear reactors and their associated processing facilities that were built beginning in 1943.

Murray’s advocacy has also put her at odds with Reid over Yucca. During her re-election campaign in 2010, Murray’s GOP opponent, Dino Rossi, accused her of not doing enough to clean up Hanford. In response, she tried to pass a proposal that would have provided $200 million to continue the licensing for the Yucca Mountain project. The amendment failed, but she made a clear statement that she was willing to take on her own leadership for the good of her constituents.

“Without a national repository [at Yucca], Hanford and other nuclear waste sites will be left in limbo,” Murray said in 2010.

Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) also declined to entertain the prospect that Deaf Smith County could come back up for review.

“The Senator is going to wait for the completion of the confirmation process before drawing any conclusions,” a Hutchison aide said.

“We’re not going to speculate on what site might be chosen,” Cornyn’s office said.  

The issue has long been a political football. In 1984, it came up in the race for a seat in the Senate between Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) and former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), with Doggett accusing Gramm of supporting the site. And it has been a recurring issue in Nevada Congressional races for decades, with candidates often trying to prove they hate the Yucca site more than their opponent.

Still, some Senators who support nuclear power argued that another site should be identified as long as the Obama administration refuses to fund the completion of Yucca or give the site a license — and as long as Reid is in the Senate.

“The bottom line is that as long as Harry Reid is the [leader] of the Senate, I just don’t think that — although I generally support using Yucca Mountain and think we have spent an awful lot of money creating it — it’s going to happen,” Sen. Mary Landrieu said.

“So for those of us that are supportive of the resurgence of nuclear power, it’s important for us to come up with Plan B,” the Louisiana Democrat said.

Landrieu said the technology for storing nuclear waste has improved since Congress first passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and even noted that a repository could help create jobs. But she was quick to say she is not endorsing it for Louisiana or anywhere else specifically.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he hopes that Yucca is built but added that if an alternative site is needed, there would have to be a “coalition of the willing.”

He quickly added that “South Carolina is not a good repository” site and would not be among the coalition, even though the Savannah River Site is in his state.  

According to a December 2008 Department of Energy report, there are 31 states with potential sites that were on the DOE’s radar for a repository, including a second site initially called for under the NWPA. Those include Vacherie Dome, La.; Cypress Creek Dome, Miss.; Richton Dome, Miss., Davis Canyon, Utah; and Lavender Canyon, Utah.

An assessment by the Congressional Research Service in a February 2009 report concluded: “The history of site selection efforts under NWPA indicates that a new repository site search would be slow-moving and extremely controversial. Vast areas of the United States would again be under consideration.”

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