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Originally published Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 3:55 PM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

U.S. Senate should confirm William Ostendorff to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The U.S. Senate should confirm Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner William Ostendorff's renomination. The Seattle Times columnist Kate Riley urges the Senate to act quickly to help resolve the question of whether Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository can proceed.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

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The nation's nuclear waste may not be a sexy topic, but the political intrigue and manipulation behind federal efforts to kill the nation's official deep-geological nuclear-waste repository has more twists than a season of "General Hospital."

The latest nail-biter is the disposition of the renomination of Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner William C. Ostendorff. A Senate committee hearing is set for Wednesday, oddly late considering his term expires June 30. Ostendorff's status is important because he has been part of the commission's deliberations on the controversial question of whether the Obama administration can unilaterally cancel the Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository that Congress designated in law.

At stake for Washington state is where to dispose of the two-thirds of the nation's dangerous cold-war era nuclear defense wastes now stored at Hanford near the Columbia River in southeastern Washington state. Already 1 million gallons have leached into the ground.

A $12 billion waste-treatment plant is under construction that would treat the waste for storage requirements at Yucca. Without the repository, Hanford would be stuck with about 50 years of the nation's nuclear-defense waste. The nation's spent commercial nuclear waste was also intended for Yucca Mountain.

The Senate should quickly end this part of the drama by confirming Ostendorff so the rest of this important national story can play out.

Though four NRC commissioners have confirmed they voted more than seven months ago, neither their votes nor the ruling have been released even though the administration has started to shut Yucca down. (A fifth recused himself.)

A May 4 Senate hearing of the four commissioners that was part browbeating, part grilling fueled speculation that Ostendorff might be siding against the Obama administration in a 2-2 split.

Fair to say that if the ruling was in the administration's favor, the decision would have been known in time for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a Yucca opponent, to tout it on the campaign trail in a tough re-election battle last fall.

This month, the Government Accountability Office issued a report confirming the obvious: The Obama administration decided to kill the Yucca project because of politics, "not technical or safety reasons." (In 2008, Candidate Obama promised Nevadans he would not support the project in Reid's home state.)

Further, the GAO reported that many officials believe the termination could "set back the opening of a new geologic repository by at least 20 years and cost billions of dollars."

That's on top of the 30 years and $15 billion already spent.

Washington, South Carolina and others have sued, challenging the administration's action in federal court. The Washington, D.C., Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule soon.

That's not all. In moving to cancel Yucca Mountain, the Obama administration convened a blue-ribbon commission to study alternatives for what to do with the waste. The final report is due in July, but the commission floated the disturbing idea of sending even more waste to Hanford.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire takes a dim view of such talk and has urged the administration not to cancel Yucca Mountain until it has another viable geological repository. Though reprocessing commercial nuclear fuel has been discussed as a way to reduce the waste, there is no technology to reprocess Hanford's legacy defense waste, said Keith Phillips, the governor's environment and energy policy adviser.

All this is why Ostendorff's timely confirmation is important. He knows the issue well, has been part of deliberations on this and other matters, including safety review of U.S. nuclear plants after the Japan nuclear crisis.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., supports Ostendorff's renomination: "Given the full slate of issues pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission I believe it is imperative that we have a full set of commissioners and the Senate should quickly reconfirm William Ostendorff."

The melodrama surrounding Yucca Mountain has not only grown tiresome but is growing more exorbitantly costly and time-wasting. The games must stop.

The Senate should confirm Ostendorff as soon as possible.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is

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