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House Republicans likely to grill NRC Chairwoman Macfarlane regarding proposed Yucca dump

NRC Chairwoman Allison MacfarlaneU.S. House Environment and the Economy Chairman John Shimkus (R-IL), and other Republican members of the subcommittee, are likely to grill U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane (photo, left) at a hearing on Tuesday, September 10th regarding her position on the long-moribund proposal to dump the nation's high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The hearing comes after a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ordered NRC to resume the long-suspended Yucca dump licensing proceeding, despite the lack of adequate funding.

NRC Chairwoman Macfarlane has already submitted her written testimony.

Rep. Shimkus has multiple atomic reactors in his congressional district, and has long been a loud advocate for the nuclear power industry. Illinois has more commercial atomic reactors than any other state (3 permanently closed, but 11 still operating), and consequently more HLRW than any other state. IL has a whopping 9,000 tons of irradiated fuel, including 772 tons at the General Electric-Hitachi Morris pool, located next door to Exelon's Dresden nuclear power plant (2 operating GE Mark I BWRs) in Morris, IL. GE-Morris has stored HLRW from multiple reactors across the country for four decades. GE-Morris was to be a reprocessing facility, but never operated due to a major design flaw that risked large-scale radioactive emissions to the environment, had the facility ever fired up. Exelon, headquartered in Warrenville, DuPage County, IL, just outside Chicago, is the single largest nuclear utility in the U.S., with some two-dozen atomic reactors in its fleet.

It is likely that U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will pop in for the hearing, as he is an ex officio member of the subcommittee. Upton has long led the charge in the U.S. House for opening the Yucca dump over the objections of the State of Nevada, its U.S. congressional delegation, and the Western Shoshone Indian Nation. Upton himself has three atomic reactors in his congressional district (Entergy's Palisades unit, and the two reactors at American Electric Power's Cook nuclear power plant). Entergy Nuclear, which has a "dirty dozen" atomic reactors in its fleet, is one of Upton's top campaign contributors.

One of Upton's and Shimkus's top committee staffers, Annie Caputo, is a former Exelon Nuclear lobbyist.

Pro-dump advocates are calling for Macfarlane's recusal, given her co-editing of the book Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation's High-Level Nuclear Waste, a critical compilation of technical analyses of the dump proposal. Macfarlane is a Ph.D. geologist. The State of Nevada, for one, has defended Macfarlane's right to remain involved in the Yucca licensing review. After all, she has been subjected to U.S. Senate confirmation hearings twice, and found to be worthy of chairing the NRC.

The calls for recusal are quite hypocritical. Other NRC Commissioners, such as William Magwood IV and Christine Svinicki, have long advocated in favor of the Yucca dump, while working in the industry and for a Republican Member of the U.S. Senate, respectively. In fact, Svinicki worked on the Yucca dump while employed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), a conflict of interest she did not reveal during her U.S. Senate confirmation hearings, much to the chagrin of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairwoman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee. Despite all this, Yucca dump advocates have not called for Magwood or Svinicki's recusal from the Yucca proceeding.

Macfarlane's predecessor as NRC Chairman, Greg Jaczko, was despised by the nuclear power industry for his anti-dump work on Capitol Hill (as a top staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), as well as a science fellow for Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA)). The industry forced Jaczko to recuse himself from Yucca-related matters for his first two years (2005-2007) as a Commissioner at the NRC. Jaczko's order, as NRC Chairman, to suspend the Yucca licensing proceeding at NRC, given the Obama administration's zeroing out of the budget for the project, was the final straw for the nuclear industry and its champions in government: they demanded Jaczko's head. Upton conducted "witch hunt" hearings on Jaczko at the end of 2011. He eventually resigned under pressure in the summer of 2012.

Peter Lyons will also testify at the hearing. Lyons heads the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, in charge of promoting the industry. Lyons was formerly an NRC Commissioner, as well as a top staff aid to U.S. Senator Pete Dominici, one of the most pro-nuclear members of Congress of the past several decades.