South Carolina and Georgia coalition blasts Department of Energy on Yucca Mountain nuclear waste decision

Paul Conner Executive Editor
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State and county leaders from South Carolina and Georgia are protesting unfulfilled promises from the federal government on disposing nuclear waste – and their voices are being heard.

A coalition of 40 officials traveled from the Southeast to Washington for a press conference Wednesday at the National Press Club, where they blasted the Department of Energy’s decision to halt progress at a Nevada nuclear waste site.

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in southern Nevada would permanently store high-level waste currently stored temporarily at the Savannah River Site (SRS) on the South Carolina-Georgia border.

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu promised early this month to continue dismantling Yucca Mountain saying, “We see no point in it.”

“Mr. Secretary, we have a message for you today. With all due respect, your decision with respect to Yucca Mountain is ill-advised and wrong-headed,” said David Jameson, president of Greater Aiken, S.C., Chamber of Commerce.

And signs show their message may be getting through.

Aiken, S.C., filed a lawsuit against Chu and the DOE on Sunday that halt the dismantling effort at the Nevada site. The U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia will hear the case. The Attorney General of Washington State filed a similar lawsuit to the same court on April 13.

In response to the suits, the DOE ordered a 21-day stoppage of the dismantling process so that the court can make their decision. The timeout will last until May 5.

Both houses of the S.C. Congress have drafted resolutions objecting to the federal government’s decision to abandon Yucca Mountain.

The coalition fears the decision to dismantle the site is political, rather than scientific. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has strongly opposed the Yucca Mountain site, saying that shutting down the project would “protect Nevada from becoming the country’s toxic wasteland.”

“We believe the decision is political, but we are not going to get into a finger pointing situation,” Jameson said.

In March, President Barack Obama followed through on a campaign promise when the administration filed to halt work at the site. Last week, the Senate proposed the 2011 budget without any funding for the Yucca Mountain site.

In January, Chu announced the creation of a Blue Ribbon Commission to make recommendations on what how nuclear waste should be disposed, but local officials claim the DOE has ignored repeated requests to be represented on the commission.

“What the panel recommends will impact us in the nuclear communities more than any other group,” said Sue Parr, president of Augusta, Ga., Chamber of Commerce. “Fairness dictates that we have more than casual input.”

And analysts say the coalition has strong legal footing on which to stand. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 designated Yucca Mountain as the proposed site for nuclear waste from the Cold War era. In 2002, Congress approved the site, as the Act had suggested.

“The deal was that the federal government would take it and put it in Yucca Mountain,” said Jack Spencer, nuclear energy expert at the Heritage Foundation. “With the administration attempting to cancel that project, it creates some significant liability for states like South Carolina.”

A DOE spokeswoman highlighted the administration’s $8 billion loan guarantee for a nuclear power plant in Georgia as a sign the president supports nuclear energy. But the DOE reiterated its stance against Yucca Mountain’s viability.

“As Secretary Chu has said consistently, Yucca Mountain is not an option, and he looks forward to receiving the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission for the long term management of our spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste,” said Katinka Podmaniczky, DOE spokeswoman. “The Department of Energy welcomes input from our community partners at sites around the country as we move forward with these important decisions.”

Officials fear that industries that potential industries will be scared off by the nuclear waste at the Savannah River site.

“The concern is not that these facilities are not safe,” said Rick McLeod, executive for the SRS Community Reuse Organization. “The concern is that the facilities have not been evaluated for storing the material permanently.”