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Yucca battle pits Shimkus against Democratic heavyweights over nuclear waste

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 6, 2011 - WASHINGTON - He's been vilified in the Las Vegas media, accused of staging a "publicity stunt" by the U.S. Senate majority leader and denounced by an influential U.S. House Democrat for making "irresponsible accusations."

But U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, an affable former schoolteacher from Collinsville, says he is taking the brouhaha over his efforts to revive the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage project in stride. And he vows to keep digging into the decision-making process involved in padlocking the tunnel in a Nevada mountain ridge that has swallowed $14 billion.

"It's a crime that's it's not being used," Shimkus, a Republican, told the Beacon after his controversial visit last week to the Yucca site. And this week, he co-chaired a House Energy and Commerce panel's hearing during which he and his allies grilled Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials about their long-delayed final decision on the Energy Department's application to shut down Yucca once and for all.

The hearing followed last month's announcement by Shimkus and the Energy and Commerce panel's chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., that they had launched an investigation into what they called "red flags" over possible irregularities and political motivations in the move to shut down the Yucca project.

"Yucca Mountain was stopped for no apparent scientific or technical reasons," alleged Shimkus, dismissing reports to the contrary. He is focusing on allegations that the decision to kill Yucca was a political deal between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and President Barack Obama, both of whom had campaigned against Yucca.

At Wednesday's hearing, committee Republicans alleged that NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko -- a physicist who formerly worked on Reid's Senate staff -- had politicized aspects of the agency's Yucca policies. The NRC's decision on the Energy Department's 2008 request to withdraw its Yucca license application -- a request that the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled lacked congressional authority -- has been pending for months because the NRC commissioners reportedly aren't in agreement.

A pile of confidential documents that Shimkus and Upton had obtained as part of their initial investigation included an email from an NRC staffer who suggested that Jaczko was "stonewalling" a decisive action on Yucca Mountain last summer and fall "as a means by which Reid gets no bad news before election day" in November.

Shimkus had wanted to keep the email under wraps until later, but Waxman outraged him and other committee Republicans by suddenly reading from a few of the emails at Wednesday's hearing and allowing Jaczko to respond quickly and directly.

"Rep. Shimkus has alleged your decision is illegal and political at the highest level," Waxman said to Jaczko. "The documents [that the NRC provided to the panel], by and large, don't support Chairman Shimkus' allegations. ... Do you think you violated federal law by directing staff to close down review?"

Jaczko answered no, and later, when Waxman asked whether he delayed "action on Yucca for political purposes," Jaczko said the steps he took were "in no way a political action intended to reference any political figure or direction from any political view."

Shimkus, Waxman Cross Rhetorical Swords

Waxman's tactical move in trying to defuse political attacks on the NRC before the Republicans had collected and digested all their information outraged Shimkus and other leading GOP members of the committee.

"What [Waxman] did was unconscionable," Shimkus told reporters at the hearing. "It affects and could very well harm the investigation" into the NRC and Energy Department's decision-making on Yucca. A Republican staffer told journalists that Waxman had done a "kabuki" dance to give Jaczko the opportunity to deny allegations.

Waxman later accused Shimkus of making "irresponsible" and "inflammatory" allegations, and sent an angry letter Thursday to the Collinsville congressman asserting that Shimkus was trying to censor committee members.

"Your objection to my questions appears to be based on a misunderstanding of your role as chairman," Waxman wrote. "As chairman, you have many powers. You get to call hearings and invite witnesses. But your authority does not extend to censoring the content of committee members' questions."

Asked by the Beacon if Shimkus had a rebuttal, a spokesman said in an email: "We are not going to get into a back-and-forth with Congressman Waxman, so we will leave it at that."

Visiting Yucca: a 'bizarre Photo Op'?

The war of words between Shimkus and Waxman started last month when the California lawmaker tried to scuttle Shimkus' trip to Yucca by releasing an Energy Department estimate claiming that the short visit could cost the government $200,000.

"At a time when the government is facing a shutdown over funding, it seems completely inappropriate to incur these needless expenses," Waxman wrote in an April 8 letter to Shimkus. "I hope you will reconsider and announce the cancellation of the site visit to Yucca Mountain."

A few Democrats bowed out of the visit after Waxman's letter, but Shimkus and two colleagues -- the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, and Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas -- ignored Waxman's plea and traveled to Nevada to see part of the Yucca facility and meet with some local politicians.

A Las Vegas Sun editorial called Shimkus' visit "a bizarre photo op. His 'inspection' was short and didn't take him far -- the power in the tunnel was out." Another Nevada newspaper quoted a Yucca opponent, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., as saying that the visit featured members of Congress "parading around an empty hole in the Nevada desert for the cameras."

But Shimkus told the Beacon that the visit was useful and important, affirming his conviction that Yucca was a perfect spot for a repository: "I mean, $14.5 billion, some of the best minds in the country have worked on it. The government property -- which includes the nuclear test site, Bureau of Land Management [acreage], and some [Energy Department] land -- is larger than the state of Rhode Island."

Shimkus said the Yucca visit "wasn't nearly the cost that [the Energy Department] said" because the congressional group drove to the site, rather than taking a helicopter from Las Vegas, and because they toured only a small part of the Yucca tunnels. "What we found out, after all this brouhaha, is that someone from the NRC had gone there the week prior to this attack on me, and they went in just 30 yards," he said. "What I've learned as a congressman is that you can't just take one bureaucrat's word that you can't do it."

Reid called the Yucca visit "a publicity stunt." Having vowed that the "ill-conceived [Yucca] project will never see the light of day," the Senate majority leader told journalists: "The only meaningful impact of this trip is the money these lawmakers are spending at Las Vegas hotels and restaurants."

But Shimkus, a West Point graduate, is determined to soldier on. "We spend $14.5 billion [on Yucca] and, because of a political agreement between two people for the purpose of getting elected, we walk away from this national treasure," Shimkus told the Beacon. "This is what drives people crazy about government."

National Treasure or White Elephant?

Shimkus' assessment of Yucca as a "national treasure" is debatable, critics say, as various studies have questioned the site's suitability as a national repository for radioactive waste, given its proximity to seismic faults and the tourist magnet of Las Vegas, whose casino and tourist leaders strongly oppose the Yucca plan.

They aren't alone. Many environmental groups -- citing an Energy Department environmental impact statement -- contend that shipping the nation's 60,000 metric tons of nuclear waste to Yucca would take 24 to 38 years, during which residents along the routes, including several that would criss-cross Illinois and Missouri, might be exposed to radioactive material if transport accidents occur.

The Energy Department says those and other concerns factored into the administration's decision to shut down the Yucca project, which is not funded in the current budget. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, described the Yucca option as flawed in congressional testimony and has said the administration wants to study other options to store nuclear waste.

Last year, Obama named a blue-ribbon commission to study waste storage. But the battle is not yet over, as the NRC has yet to make a final ruling and several states have sued over the Yucca actions of the Energy Department, which by law is responsible for disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste at 121 sites in 39 states.

Shimkus contends that science is on his side when it comes to Yucca, citing numerous reports over the years that call for a permanent repository. "Before we stopped this [Yucca] process, we were the lead nation in the research and development of a repository. We led the world, and now we are frittering it away," he told the Beacon.

"I'm labeled as a science skeptic on climate issues -- that I don't want to follow the science. Well, the nay sayers [on Yucca] are the science skeptics."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.