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GOP holding Obama's feet to the fire on Yucca Mountain

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Lawmakers want to ensure that the administration follows the law and builds the Nevada nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Republican leaders on the House energy committee are gearing up to hold the Obama administration's feet to the fire when it comes to constructing the nation's first long-term nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and environment subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., pressed Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on the issue in a letter sent Thursday, asking how the administration is going to rectify what is called for under the law and what the White House sees as its own agenda for dealing with nuclear waste.

The committee appears to be gearing up for a protracted campaign to get the administration to move in what Upton and Shimkus see as the legal way forward under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Under the act, the government has been collecting money from ratepayers for decades to build the Yucca site to bury waste from nuclear reactors, and the committee leaders want to ensure the site is a priority.

During Obama's first term, the administration pulled the plug on the Yucca site as a favor to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. But a federal court ordered the administration to reverse its decision as unjustified without Congress' sign off. The Obama administration is still doing its own thing, so to speak, negotiating an interim storage site on its own without much input from Congress.

The letter to Moniz underscores that the administration's pursuit of its own waste agenda may violate the law.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act "terminated all site specific activities other than Yucca Mountain," the committee leaders said. "However, in November, you stated department 'staff is reviewing a proposal to build a temporary storage site in Andrews County, Texas' and recently you stated department staff 'has already met with private-sector officials on interim storage.'"

Upton and Shimkus want Moniz to provide detailed plans that ensure Yucca will be built even as it seeks to build the interim facility.

Earlier this year, Upton asked the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency, to provide a detailed report on what would be necessary for the Energy Department to finish its work on Yucca Mountain.

Moniz told the committee earlier this month that the agency will cooperate in the watchdog's investigation. At the same time the letter lays out a deadline for Moniz to answer questions in the letter by April 14.

The committee leaders in the letter say they will hold a hearing on restarting Yucca and the agency's obligations under the law to do so and will request that Moniz testify.

"As part of our process to develop a comprehensive legislative framework, we look forward to hearing from you at a future committee hearing about what legislative authority the department needs to implement its 'strategy,'" the letter states.

"We will work with your office to find a mutually agreeable hearing date, following your response to the questions" in the letter, the committee leaders say.