Chairman Gregory Jaczko testified recently that the NRC decided to begin closing down the agency’s effort to review the Yucca Mountain license application in early October, 2010. Some of his fellow commissioners testified that they did not agree with the decision and they do not agree that the commission has made the policy decision to stop the license reviews.

However, Jaczko used the “power of the purse” to establish the policy by removing funding for that review when submitting the fiscal year 2011 budget, an action that formally took place in February 2010. When that budget was submitted, I contacted the NRC’s Office of Public Affairs to ask why the submission for 2011 requested less money than was appropriated for 2010, even without considering any reduction in the value of money due to inflation. My concern was that a requested increase in loan guarantee authority would increase license application activity, not decrease it, and there were already many signs pointing to an agency that was working slowly due to a lack of sufficient resources.

Here is a quote from the agency’s response to that inquiry, dated February 6, 2010:

So, in a nutshell, we’re anticipating less of the routine licensing work than we had been doing. In future years, we aren’t anticipating a whole lot of growth now that we are pretty well staffed up and the staff assigned to Yucca work gets reassigned.

Below is a video clip with part of Jaczko’s May 4, 2011 testimony in front of a joint hearing conducted by the Subcommittee on Energy and Power and the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, both of which are part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In many ways, it is too bad that Chairman Jaczko spent so much of his time studying the low energy behavior of baryons and mesons and the political maneuvering associated with working in congressional offices. He is a very intelligent man who is skilled at the arts that he has practiced. He understands that people who control budgets have the ability to set policy if that is what they want to do. By eliminating funding – even for a time – and dispersing the team that had been working on the license application review, he made the policy decision that he was unable to achieve through the normal process of conducting a vote.

During the hearing, Commissioner Magwood testified that he reluctantly accepted the decision to reassign staff that had been working on the Yucca Mountain application review because he recognized that there were constrained resources. He apparently did not realize that the budget constraint was imposed by submission that the chairman decided to sent forward.

Commissioners Ostendorf and Sviniki testified that they opposed the decision and supported a different proposal made by Commissioner Ostendorf that would have continued work on the application. However, that proposal failed when it received two supporting votes and the other three commissioners decided not to participate in the decision. The rules by which the NRC governs its voting processes provide four options – yes, no, abstain and decline to participate. Apparently, a vote of “decline to participate” equals a no vote.

Before you misinterpret my concern and assume that I am motivated by trying to align with one political party or the other, please understand that I have been trying for more than a decade and a half to convince nuclear industry leaders to abandon support for the DOE’s Yucca Mountain project and to advocate a direction that includes on site storage with eventual used fuel recycling (using any of a variety of available and to-be-invented techniques). My often stated opinion is that used nuclear fuel is a valuable resource for future generations, not something that should be treated as a waste product and put into one of the most inaccessible locations in the country.

I am not a conservative and I voted for our current president. My concern is the way that the decision was made – we do not live in a country where skillful political maneuvers should overturn the decisions made by the official process.

Along those same lines, I will conclude that I am very concerned about the fact that the Chairman has not started laying any groundwork for asking for additional resources in response to the Fukushima event. An effective leader running an organization with a mission that he believes is important would recognize that unanticipated events requiring substantial resources necessitate either an increase in total resources or a reduction in previously scheduled effort. There is no other alternative. Since federal agencies are not allowed to maintain savings accounts for rainy days, they must approach Congress for additional appropriations.

Anyone who listens to the agency describing how it has manned a response center and sent skilled teams to Japan should recognize that those unplanned and not budgeted resources are coming from somewhere. Anyone who is paying attention to the announced 90 day review of current practices to see if there are any lessons learned that should be applied to operating US nuclear plants should recognize that those resources are also coming from somewhere.

Since the agency has made it very clear that they are – appropriately – not reducing any previously budgeted resources associated with operating nuclear plants, the primary source for the unanticipated resource expenditures has to be the new reactor licensing effort. (A portion of new reactor licensing reviews are conducted by contracted experts; it is fairly easy, from a budgetary point of view, to move those resources to other efforts.)

I am certain that the Chairman and his communications team will claim that it is okay to reduce those resources. The indications are that they would like us all to believe that the public response to the events in Japan will cause applicants to want to either delay or cancel previously planned applications.

Photo by Fastfission.