WASHINGTON — A House energy panel said Thursday it is investigating the Obama administration's decision to halt plans to bury the nation's nuclear waste in Nevada.
The investigation by the Republican-led Energy and Commerce panel focuses new attention on the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository 90 miles from Las Vegas.
Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and John Shimkus, R-Ill., said there is no scientific or technical basis for withdrawing the application for Yucca Mountain, the only permanent storage site in the U.S. designated for spent nuclear fuel.
"The tragic events unfolding in Japan underscore the urgent need for the United States to pursue a coherent nuclear policy to safely and permanently store spent nuclear fuel," Upton and Shimkus said in a statement.
Yucca Mountain has been endorsed by many scientists and lawmakers from both parties, and U.S. officials have spent decades and billions of dollars developing the site, yet "this administration has recklessly sought to pull the plug on the Yucca repository without even the sensibility of offering a viable alternative," the lawmakers said. Upton chairs the energy panel, while Shimkus heads a subcommittee on the environment and economy.
A spokeswoman for the Energy Department said officials will work with committee leaders as they perform their oversight role.
Opponents of Yucca Mountain have said they are concerned about possible contamination, and the Obama administration said it would not consider the site and would look for alternatives.
News of the investigation came as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said three U.S. nuclear power plants need increased oversight from federal regulators because of safety problems or unplanned shutdowns.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said the three plants – in South Carolina, Kansas and Nebraska – "are the plants we are most concerned about" among the 65 U.S. nuclear power plants in 31 states. All U.S. plants are operating safely, Jaczko said.
An agency spokesman said the plants under review are the H.B. Robinson nuclear plant in South Carolina, Fort Calhoun in Nebraska and Wolf Creek in Kansas.
Spokesman Scott Burnell said three reactors at the Oconee Nuclear Station in South Carolina had been on the watch list, but were removed two weeks ago after improved performance reviews. He emphasized that all 104 U.S. nuclear reactors operate safely, and that the heightened review of the three plants was routine.
"The NRC felt the three required significant additional oversight but continue to operate safely," he said.
All U.S. nuclear plants are inspected frequently. If enough minor problems or issues are identified, a plant moves to a second level of inspection, Burnell said.
Items that aren't resolved in a reasonable time – or new items of higher significance – can move a plant to a third level of closer inspection and oversight. That is where the plants in South Carolina, Kansas and Nebraska are listed, Burnell said.
The agency has two higher levels of concern for even more serious problems: one where senior NRC management becomes involved and a final level where a plant is shut down until officials determine it is safe to reopen. No U.S. plants are currently listed in either category.
Nine of the 104 U.S. reactors are listed in the second, minor level of concern, Burnell said.
At a hearing Thursday of an energy subcommittee, GOP lawmakers repeatedly blasted the plan to halt the Yucca Mountain project, calling it blatantly political. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been a relentless opponent of the Yucca Mountain site, and Obama promised during the 2008 presidential campaign that he would look for other ways to address the disposal of highly radioactive waste from commercial nuclear power plants.
"Probably the four most expensive electoral votes ever cast in this country were the four Nevada votes in 2008" for Obama, said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. "They cost us approximately $12 billion in shutting down Yucca Mountain, or the attempt to shut down Yucca Mountain."
Simpson and other critics say the Obama administration is violating a federal law that designates Yucca Mountain as the leading candidate for waste disposal.
"I firmly believe that you are acting outside the law," Simpson told Jaczko.
Jaczko replied that the commission's lawyer disagrees with that interpretation, adding that the NRC has approved a budget for the next fiscal year that does not include any money for Yucca Mountain.
"Commission approval of a budget doesn't mean diddly. What matters is what passes Congress," Simpson retorted.
Last year, the Energy Department filed a motion with the NRC to withdraw its application for Yucca Mountain. The commission has not ruled on that motion, but the Energy Department has gone ahead with dismantling the project.
South Carolina and Washington state are among those suing the president and other federal officials to try to restart plans to ship spent nuclear fuel to Yucca Mountain.