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NRC chairman says investigation cleared him in Yucca Mountain case

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
  • Critics say nuclear official too influenced by politics
  • House panel charges Energy Department ignored its own experts

Washington (CNN) -- The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Wednesday that independent investigators have cleared him of any wrongdoing in the decision to kill plans to store nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada.

In a written statement, chairman Gregory Jaczko said a seven-month investigation by the agency's Inspector General concluded that Jaczko's actions "have been and remain consistent with established law, guidance and my authorities as chairman."

Inspector General's investigative reports are not made public, and efforts by CNN to obtain a copy late Wednesday were unsuccessful.

But an NRC official, speaking on background, said the agency released Jaczko's statement "to point out the (report's) salient finding -- that the actions of the chairman were, as he has said all along, consistent with his authority as chairman."

Critics allege that Jaczko (pronounced "Yaz-koh") was unduly influenced by political considerations in terminating the license review for Yucca Mountain. Before being appointed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Jaczko served as chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who vowed never to allow Yucca Mountain to proceed.

Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was to be the solution to the nuclear waste problem -- a final destination for the tons of hazardous nuclear waste accumulating at commercial reactors in 33 states. In 1987, Congress directed the DOE to dispose of waste in the mountain beginning in 1998, a date later pushed to 2017 and again to 2020.

But following the election of President Barack Obama, the secretary of energy announced plans to drop the Yucca Mountain project and set up a blue ribbon commission to study alternatives. Jaczko followed up by terminating the NRC licensing review of the facility.

In his statement Wednesday, Jaczko wrote, "The closeout of the Yucca Mountain license review has been a complicated issue, with dedicated and experienced people holding different viewpoints. All NRC chairmen have the responsibility to make difficult and sometimes controversial decisions."

Jaczko wrote that the IG's finding should give the American public confidence in the process.

But the IG report is unlikely to end the heated debate over how the Department of Energy and the NRC came to kill the project. The House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee said Wednesday the Energy Department "simply ignored" its own technical experts when withdrawing the Yucca Mountain application.

It says Christopher Kouts, described as a point person on the Yucca project, testified that no one in his department was consulted about the decision.