Thursday, May 19, 2011

Yucca Mountain: Episode II - Attack of the Clones?

Last week, I wrote about the growing controversy over the Obama administration's decision to shut down operations at the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

This week, news outlets are reporting that Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko has been out-voted by other commission members.  The issue du jour is whether to release an unredacted preliminary safety report to Congress -- formally, draft "Volume III of the Safety Evaluation Report ('SER')" for the Department of Energy's now-withdrawn Yucca Mountain license application.

According to an April 28, 2011 letter released this week by Congressman Ralph M. Hall (R-Tx.), a majority of commissioners disagreed with Jaczko and sent an unredacted version of the technical report to Congress.  "I have reiterated my belief that public release of preliminary staff findings and conclusions establishes a dangerous agency precedent," Jaczko wrote in the letter.  "Notwithstanding my reservations, a majority of the Commission is willing to provide unredacted copies in response to Congressional Committee requests provided that they are held in confidence."

At multiple turns, Chairman Jaczko's letter emphasizes the tentative nature of the Commission staff's evaluation:

  • "[T]he findings and conclusions in the document are preliminary."

  • "The staff's preliminary findings may turn out to be incorrect or incomplete.  As such, they can mislead or confuse the public."

  • "The redacted portions represent[] the predecisional findings and conclusions we normally protect from public release consistent with the Freedom of Information Act.  Even my colleagues and I have not had access to the redacted portions of SER Volume III.  As the appellate body for the agency, the Commission does not have access to predecisional, non-public information regarding the staff's substantive review of the Yucca Mountain application."

Perhaps more than anything, the Commission's release of this report exposes the increased politicization of energy policy in the nation's capital this year.  Yucca mountain long has been a political battleground.  Now, despite the Obama administration's express support for the nuclear industry, the current Congress is using the president's decision to shutter Yucca as political ammunition.

Add to this the ongoing debate over tax credits utilized by the oil industry, the increasing spotlight on natural gas fracking, and continuing malaise in D.C. on climate change policy, and the political nature of energy policy in the United States is laid bare.  It resurrects the persistent question of American energy law and policy: Will we let markets decide our fate, or will we affirmatively choose the energy path we desire?

Once again, the answer seems to be "neither."  Like the few Jedi scattered in an army of so many Republic clones, the real debate gets lost in the politics.

-Lincoln Davies

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/environmental_law/2011/05/yucca-episode-ii-attack-of-the-clones.html

Climate Change, Current Affairs, Energy, Environmental Assessment, US | Permalink

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