Updated 6:35 p.m. | It helps to be the majority leader when you're trying to kill the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is using floor time this week to confirm nominees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — a move that will ensure a Democratic majority.
Two Republicans now outnumber the only Democrat on the commission, NRC Chairwoman Allison M. Macfarlane, who has indicated opposition to the Yucca Mountain project before being confirmed by the Senate two years ago deeming the site geologically unsound and calling for an alternative.
The two nominees, Jeffery M. Baran and Stephen G. Burns, would fill vacant spots on the commission. Reid has spent considerable political capital to effectively kill the project, and repeatedly used his influence to ensure the NRC's opposition to it. The Senate is scheduled to vote on whether to cut off debate on the nominations Monday evening and the confirmation vote is expected to take place Tuesday afternoon.
Senate action comes after the Environment and Public Works Committee cleared both Baran and Burns Tuesday, but received only one Republican vote each, from Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, charged that Reid’s action ran the risk of installing unqualified nominees. He cited the Senate Democrats’ use of the nuclear option last year to lower the threshold to a simple majority from 60 votes for cutting off debate on almost all nominees – which means the nominees will almost certainly be confirmed.
“It is still vitally important finding a final solution for our nation’s nuclear waste,” Vitter said. “A solution should continue to include Yucca Mountain, as over $15 billion in taxpayer dollars have already been expended on this project. Unfortunately, the partiality and qualifications of today’s nominees matters little in light of Senator Reid’s and the Democrat majority’s desire to push forward under the new Senate rules. Whether these two nominees will act with impartiality and make decisions based on prudence and sound judgment will be seen.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, dismissed Vitter’s allegations and urged the Senate to back the nominees.
“I believe the nominees that were approved by the EPW Committee today are highly qualified, and their commitment to NRC’s mission will increase the level of confidence the American people have in the safety of the nation’s nuclear facilities,” Boxer said. “I look forward to moving these nominations quickly through the full Senate.”
Macfarlane was confirmed in 2012 to take over from former chairman Gregory B. Jaczko, a one-time Reid staffer, whom Reid helped install, and staunch opponent of the Yucca project. Reid used every tool in the box, including a blanket hold on President George W. Bush’s nominees, to get Jaczko on the NRC.
Reid Backed MacFarlane, in part, because of her comments on Yucca, including in a 2009 interview with Technology Review magazine , when she said she supported nuclear power and noted that an alternative to Yucca is needed because the site is geologically unsound.
Jaczko resigned from the NRC after months in which he battled accusations by the four other commissioners of the bipartisan agency of having a heavy-handed management style. That style, his detractors contend, disrupted the NRC’s ability to complete its nuclear safety mission.
In April 2013, Reid appointed Jaczko to a post on a congressional panel overseeing the National Nuclear Security Administration.
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