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Originally published July 8, 2010 at 4:23 PM | Page modified July 9, 2010 at 8:44 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Nuclear Regulatory Commission seems tainted on Yucca Mountain decision

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has asked for briefs on whether the Obama administration can unilaterally withdraw its application for the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository. Columnist Kate Riley suggests that because four of the five members have recently admitted a bias in favor of the Obama administration's position, the proceedings are likely to be little more than a kangaroo court.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

The Obama administration was supposed to bring science back into federal decision-making. And transparency. And change we can believe in.

Where is that change and transparency when making scientific decisions about the nation's high-level nuclear waste?

Oh, there's science involved — political science.

President Obama's political machinations threaten to waste $10 billion of federal investment, 30 years of work, not to mention flout the will of Congress.

Seeking every last delegate in 2008, candidate Barack Obama promised Nevadans he would stop efforts at Yucca Mountain to build the nation's only deep-geological repository for its spent commercial nuclear fuel and nuclear defense waste. Hanford in Southeastern Washington manages about two-thirds of U.S. defense wastes intended for longterm disposal at Yucca.

This year, the Obama administration zeroed out the Yucca Mountain budget and moved to withdraw a 2-year-old license application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — "with prejudice," meaning Yucca could never be considered again. Washington state joined South Carolina and others in challenging the move before the NRC and filing federal lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the administration appointed a blue-ribbon panel to consider what to do with the waste — an important mission especially considering whether to reverse the nation's policy against recycling spent fuel. However, confoundingly, the panel must resolutely avert its eyes from the rich study of Yucca Mountain and everything learned there.

Why? Not for safety reasons.

"The Secretary's judgment here is not that Yucca Mountain is unsafe or that there are flaws in the (license application), but rather that is not a workable option and that alternatives will better serve the public interest," the Department of Energy said in papers filed in federal court.

The story gets more twisted.

Last week, the NRC's own judges on the Atomic Licensing and Safety Board slapped down Obama's unilateral decision to stop Yucca Mountain, saying it didn't have the authority to ignore the intent of Congress. But rather than wait for an appeal, the NRC asserted jurisdiction, demanding parties submit arguments by Friday.

Apparently, we are to believe this NRC can make an unbiased decision

Don't bet on it. At a February Senate confirmation hearing, Sen. Barbara Boxer asked Obama's three newest NRC appointees, "If confirmed would you second guess the Department of Energy's decision to withdraw the license application for Yucca Mountain from NRC's review?" The job applicants — William Magwood, William C. Ostendorff and George Apostolakis — all gave the right one-word answer: "No."

And Obama's hand-picked chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko? He is a former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a vigorous project opponent. Jaczko was appointed in 2005. When faced with Senate concerns about his biases, he actually recused himself from related decisions for a year.

So, there you have it. Four of the five sitting NRC members recently admitted a bias on the question the commission now seeks to decide. Any reasonable person would question whether the commission has the credibility to consider this issue and the law in a fair way.

In fact, it would not be reasonable to think the NRC's proceedings will be anything other than a kangaroo court.

Meantime, the Obama administration has to be feeling some pressure. Congress is taking notice. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, sent a letter, signed by 91 members of Congress, urging Energy Secretary Steven Chu to halt the dismantling of Yucca Mountain operations until the issue is resolved before the NRC and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

President Obama has erred in using a critical public policy issue for political advantage — and in such a brazen way.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com

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