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Originally published Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 4:25 PM

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Hoping for a fair hearing on Yucca Mountain

A board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will consider an Obama administration request to withdraw permanently a permit application for the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository. The Times editorial board says the administration's action is premature, wasteful and disingenuous.

WE hope the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's board hearing Thursday on whether the Obama administration can unilaterally withdraw its permit application for the nation's nuclear-waste repository is a fair one.

There is not much that does not stink about President Obama's decision to squander 30 years and $10 billion of study of Nevada's Yucca Mountain site and flout an act of Congress. The 1997 law designated Yucca Mountain as the longterm site to hold the nation's commercial nuclear waste now stacking up around the country and the nation's high-level nuclear-defense waste. Hanford in Southeastern Washington has two-thirds of the nation's defense waste.

Washington and South Carolina are seeking to intervene in the administration's action, both before the NRC and in federal lawsuits.

The Department of Energy applied for the Yucca permit in 2008. Two years later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, struggles for re-election. Obama comes to the rescue, zeroing out Yucca Mountain's budget and creating a blue-ribbon commission to consider where the waste should go instead — but the data-rich Yucca option is off the table. The Obama administration's request to withdraw the permit "with prejudice" would preclude any further consideration.

But why not keep Yucca as a possible alternative while others are studied?

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate scientist, could not answer the scientific question posed at a hearing by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, who opposes the federal action. That is because the answer is political. Washington U.S. Reps. Norm Dicks, Jay Inslee and Doc Hastings also oppose the move.

The NRC board that will decide whether the administration could withdraw its application previously delayed its proceeding, deferring to the federal courts. But, in April, the four sitting commission members, including three Obama appointees and a fourth whom Obama designated as chair, voted unanimously to overrule the board's decision and made it take up the issue.

Interestingly, the three newest members of the commission, William Magwood, George Apostolakis and William Ostendorff, at their February confirmation hearings all agreed they would not challenge Obama's Yucca decision.

Meanwhile, the administration's scheme proceeds. Last month, the Energy Department ordered the project's main contractors to terminate most work and prepare for laying off more workers.

These moves are clearly premature, certainly wasteful and obviously disingenuous. Sure, go ahead and study alternatives. But if this was an earnest effort to find the best solution, Yucca Mountain would remain among the possibilities.

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