- Associated Press - Thursday, March 31, 2011

A House energy panel said Thursday it is investigating the Obama administration’s decision to halt plans to bury the nation’s nuclear waste in Nevada, saying the catastrophic Japanese earthquake proves the dangers of storing spent nuclear fuel at power plants.

The probe by the Republican-led Energy and Commerce Committee focuses new attention on the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository 90 miles from Las Vegas.

Republican Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and John Shimkus of Illinois, said there is no scientific or technical basis for withdrawing the application for Yucca Mountain, the only permanent storage site in the U.S. designated for spent nuclear fuel.

“The tragic events unfolding in Japan underscore the urgent need for the United States to pursue a coherent nuclear policy to safely and permanently store spent nuclear fuel,” Mr. Upton and Mr. Shimkus said in a statement.

Yucca Mountain has been endorsed by many scientists and lawmakers from both parties, and U.S. officials have spent decades and billions of dollars developing the site, yet “this administration has recklessly sought to pull the plug on the Yucca repository without even the sensibility of offering a viable alternative,” the lawmakers said.

Mr. Upton is chairman of the energy panel, while Mr. Shimkus heads a subcommittee on the environment and economy.

A spokeswoman for the Energy Department said officials will work with committee leaders as they perform their oversight role.

Opponents of Yucca Mountain have said they are concerned about possible contamination, and the Obama administration said it would not consider the site and would look for alternatives.

At a hearing Thursday of an energy subcommittee, Republican lawmakers repeatedly blasted the plan to halt the Yucca Mountain project, calling it blatantly political.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has been a relentless opponent of the site, and Mr. Obama promised during the 2008 presidential campaign that he would look for other ways to address the disposal of highly radioactive waste from commercial nuclear power plants.

“Probably the four most expensive electoral votes ever cast in this country were the four Nevada votes in 2008” for Mr. Obama, said Rep. Michael K. Simpson, Idaho Republican. “They cost us approximately $12 billion in shutting down Yucca Mountain, or the attempt to shut down Yucca Mountain.”

Mr. Simpson and other critics say the Obama administration is violating a federal law that designates Yucca Mountain as the leading candidate for waste disposal.

“I firmly believe that you are acting outside the law,” Mr. Simpson told Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

Mr. Jaczko replied that the commission’s lawyer disagrees with that interpretation, adding that the NRC has approved a budget for the next fiscal year that does not include any money for Yucca Mountain.

“Commission approval of a budget doesn’t mean diddly. What matters is what passes Congress,” Mr. Simpson retorted.

Last year, the Energy Department filed a motion with the NRC to withdraw its application for Yucca Mountain. The commission has not ruled on that motion, but the Energy Department has gone ahead with dismantling the project.

South Carolina and Washington state are among those suing the president and other federal officials to try to restart plans to ship spent nuclear fuel to Yucca Mountain.