By Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers questioned top officials from the U.S. nuclear regulator on Wednesday over its role in shelving a permanent dump for radioative waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.
Storage of nuclear waste is a top issue for regulators in the wake of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Officials in Japan are struggling to repair cooling systems needed to bring the reactors under control after bad damage from the March earthquake and tsunami.
Years ago, U.S. lawmakers decided to store waste deep inside Nevada's Yucca Mountain. The plan drew fierce opposition from residents of that state and their Senator Harry Reid. It was ultimately overturned by the Obama administration.
Republicans and some Democrats who want to keep the option open peppered the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission about its role in shutting down licensing of the site.
A commission vote on the matter has not been officially resolved, even though commissioners voted nine months ago.
"We are working to achieve a majority position," said Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the NRC.
His answers left lawmakers unsatisfied.
"Today's hearing is not going to be the end of this," said Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who has launched a formal probe of the issue.
"Simply shutting the doors on the already spent $12 billion for Yucca is not acceptable, especially with no other alternatives," he said.
PARTISAN SNIPING OVER PROBE
All commissioners spoke at the hearing except George Apostolakis, who was traveling overseas -- the first time in more than a decade that the House committee had called them together.
The commissioners said they could not reveal how they voted on the Yucca issue, but Republican commissioners Kristine Svinicki and William Ostendorff expressed concerns the matter had not been resolved.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce committee, raised the ire of Republicans when he asked Jaczko about emails obtained during the committee's probe.
The emails from a commission employee assert the decision to stop work on the Yucca license application was illegal and that action on Yucca was delayed for political reasons.
Jaczko, who worked for Senator Reid before being named to the NRC, said his actions were consistent with NRC policy and legal processes.
"It was in no way a political action," Jaczko said.
Republicans accused Waxman of attempting to sabotage their probe, which began at the end of March.
"What he did was unconscionable," said Representative John Shimkus, who is leading the Yucca probe with Upton.
"It affects and could very well harm the investigation and produce a chilling effect on anyone else we'll be asking for comment," Shimkus told reporters.
FUKUSHIMA IMPROVEMENTS "ONLY INCREMENTAL"
Jaczko also gave lawmakers an update on the damaged Fukushima plant, which he said Japanese authorities are struggling to control.
"While we have not seen or predicted any new significant challenges to safety at the site, we have only seen incremental improvements toward stabilizing the reactors and spent fuel pools," Jaczko said.
The NRC is reviewing the 104 nuclear plants in the United States in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima plant to see whether safety improvements are needed.
A task force will give its first status report on the investigation at a hearing next week.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by John Picinich and David Gregorio)