July 1, 2001
L.A. Loves a Loophole
There's no getting around it...
Dodging Suits and Pols, DOE Digs In on Nuclear Waste
Chair Murkowski Chews Out an Undersecretary. At a Senate panel on a bill calling for the Department of Energy to store nuclear waste short-term, opponents stacked up objections, even renewing opposition to a permanent site.
The "Nuclear Waste Policy Act," S. 104, is similar to a bill passed in the Senate last year. It calls for
construction of temporary storage, a safe way to transport the waste, and more studies leading to a permanent site 1,200 feet below the ground at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Already, $6 billion has helped bore an exploratory tunnel there.
Last year, the bill wasn't taken up in the House because of a veto threat by President Clinton.
In the most unusual exchange at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing, Thomas P. Grumbly of the Department of Energy gave more than a dozen noncommittal answers to the chairman's dogged questioning on whether the administration would support a permanent repository at Yucca (em even if scientific and regulatory measures were met.
One of the DOE undersecretary's final answer wandered this way: "Since Nevada is the only place we're investigating at the moment, if we follow all the circumstances that are going down the road, I have no reason to believe today that we wouldn't continue to support geological repository. And if all of those indications are clear, since that's the only place that we're investigating, ipso facto your answer has to be (em I suppose (em the right one."
The overpacked committee chamber laughed at the reply. "I think it's clear that you don't care to answer the question," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), committee chairman.
Later, after conferring with aides who may have rung the president, Grumbly said that if the conditions for permanent disposal were met, he could "assume" the president would support Yucca Mountain.
"We will proceed under that reassurance, which was, uh, several hours in coming," Murkowski said.
The Administration may have to move faster in the future (em both on short- and long-term storage, because several events are bearing down on it. First on the list is a follow-up suit to a federal appeals court decision issued last July.
Responsibility for the waste is the key legal issue, and was first raised in a decision handed down July 23, 1996 (Indiana-Michigan Power Co. v. DOE, Nos. 95-1279, et al., D.C. Cir.). The court settled the academic question: The DOE has to accept the waste by Jan. 1, 1998 or default on its obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.
The White House opted not to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
In his Jan. 13, 1997 letter to Frank J. Kelley, Michigan's Attorney General Robert R. Nordhaus, DOE general counsel, noted that according to the court, it was premature to determine the remedy of what to do with the waste, because the department hasn't yet defaulted on its obligations.
Nordhaus also noted the DOE won't be able to accept spent nuclear fuel for long-term or short-term storage by Jan. 1, 1998. He asked for suggestions from those