April 7, 2011 / 1:38 AM / in 7 years

U.S. nuclear regulator split on Yucca report release

* Chairman Jaczko condemned Issa request for report

* Staff report on Yucca is not final

* Congress investigating NRC, Jaczko’s role ending project

By Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON, April 6 (Reuters) - The five commissioners at the helm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were sharply divided last month over whether to release an incomplete, internal safety review of the controversial proposed Yucca nuclear waste dump site to a congressional watchdog, according to documents obtained by Reuters.

The Obama administration began to stop work on the proposed Yucca Mountain site, designed to permanently hold toxic nuclear waste, shortly after taking office.

But the project has been tied up in legal and procedural wrangling ever since. It is favored by many lawmakers who want to boost U.S. use of nuclear power, but opposed by Nevada residents including Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

The nuclear disaster in Japan has revived concerns in the United States about how nuclear waste is stored -- and Republican hopes to revive the Yucca dump.

Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, had requested the documents as part of a probe into the NRC’s involvement in shelving the project.

A majority of the five commissioners at the helm of the nuclear regulator agreed to turn over the report to Issa last month, but asked that it be kept confidential.

But NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said he did not think the release was appropriate and condemned Issa’s request for the document, noting it went against the NRC’s standard practice.

“Providing you with this type of information is inconsistent with decades of established commission practice designed to preserve the agency’s fundamental ability to conduct fair and impartial deliberations,” Jaczko said in a March 30 letter to Issa marked “not for public disclosure.”

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Q+A-Yucca Mountain controversy [ID:nN06164783]

NEWSMAKER-NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko [ID:nN06200024]

FACTBOX-NRC commissioners [ID:nN06206336]

ANALYSIS-No easy fix for US nuclear waste [ID:nN21100265]

TAKE A LOOK-Japan nuclear crisis [ID:nL3E7ER075]

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The NRC’s involvement in shutting down Yucca has come under Republican scrutiny in part because Jaczko was a top aide to Reid, who backed his appointment to the regulatory body.

Jaczko stopped work on the NRC’s licensing process -- including the safety review -- for the Yucca site in 2010 after the administration requested that the application for the project be pulled.

Lawmakers who support the site have attacked Jaczko for the move, since the full commission has yet to make a final decision on whether the Energy Department had the authority to pull the Yucca application.

With tensions high over the issue, Issa earlier this year launched a probe of the decision that included a request for the safety study.

The NRC commissioners agreed to provide the study and voted to send a short, one-page letter with a much milder request for confidentiality a few days before Jaczko sent his letter.

“The commission requests that the committee hold it in confidence. The staff considers this document pre-decisional,” said the three-paragraph letter approved by the commissioners, who noted none of them have seen the actual study.

In a break with the chairman, the four commissioners sent a copy of that correspondence to Issa after they became aware of Jaczko’s strongly worded letter.

Jaczko said full disclosure of the report to the public would set a bad precedent and open the commission to lawsuits.

“Any unauthorized public release of this document would establish a dangerous precedent, setting the agency up to provide potentially incorrect or misleading information to the public, and to litigate multiple draft positions in our hearing process,” he said in his letter to Issa.

“This would result in an inappropriate and unworkable licensing process for everything from license renewals for operating reactors to the potential licensing of new reactors and other facilities,” Jazcko said. (Editing by Carol Bishopric)

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