Nevada promises fight over federal nuclear dump application

LAS VEGAS (The Associated Press) - Jun 3
By KEN RITTER Associated Press Writer

    Nevada opponents said they're primed to test Energy Secretary Samuel
Bodman's claim that an application submitted Tuesday to build a national
nuclear waste dump outside Las Vegas will "stand up to any challenge

    "We're going to file with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,
challenging the completeness of this document," Marta Adams, a deputy state
attorney general, said after a truck delivered tens of thousands of pages of
documents to the NRC's office in Rockville, Md. The application covers 17
volumes and 8,600 pages, and is supported by more than 200 other documents
and studies.

    The first state challenge could be filed Wednesday, said Adams who is
among those fighting against burying 77,000 tons of radioactive waste in the
desert under an ancient volcanic ridge called Yucca Mountain.

    "We believe there's so much missing that no responsible review agency
could really docket it," Adams said.

    Docketing is the first step in the lengthy NRC review process, which
officially started after the Bush administration submitted its voluminous
and long-delayed application for a license to build and operate the
underground storage facility 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

    "Let's get the review started," Bodman said during a news conference
in which he acknowledged Nevada's long-standing opposition. "Let's get the
docketing started."

    NRC Chairman Dale Klein promised a review "entirely on technical
merits" and said the agency "will perform an independent, rigorous and
thorough examination to determine whether the repository can safely house
the nation's high level waste."

    Nevada opponents ranging from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who
has vowed to starve the project of congressional funding, to Gov. Jim
Gibbons, who called the dump a threat to the state's residents, vowed to
launch hundreds of specific challenges to the proposed design of the

    Irene Navis, head of the Clark County nuclear waste planning division,
called the license application "the most important milestone we have faced
to date." She said officials believe 75 percent of the nearly 2 million Las
Vegas area residents oppose the project.

    "Now we can put their conclusions to an actual legal test," said Steve
Frishman, a technical consultant for the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects,
the state's anti-Yucca Mountain office. He called Tuesday's filing a turning
point in the 25-year fight over Yucca Mountain.

    "This is the first time the Department of Energy is legally
responsible for their claims of safety," Frishman said.

    Challenges, called contentions, will be ruled upon during up to four
years of hearings before NRC judges in Las Vegas and Washington.

    "We anticipate we're going to have 250 to 500 or more individual
challenges," said Bob Loux, who head Nevada's anti-Yucca office. Hundreds
more challenges could come from industry lobbyists and rural counties over
potential contamination of ground water, water rights and environmental
issues, he said.

    Loux said scientists have found rock at the core of the wind-swept
mountain about 20 miles from the farming community of Amargosa Valley to be
more porous and more geologically active than expected. He said experts
believe water will leach radioactive atoms, called radionuclides, from the
site into the underground water supply.

    "I'm quite comfortable with the filing of the application," Bodman

    "This material is directed to go to Yucca Mountain by law," the energy
secretary said, adding that he had confidence in scientific assessments that
highly radioactive waste from 121 sites in 39 states can be entombed safely.

    The application is a key requirement of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act
of 1982, which set in motion studies leading to selection of Yucca Mountain
as the nation's lone option for a national nuclear waste dump. Under the law
the government is contractually required to accept spent fuel from
commercial power plants and was to have had a central repository available
for fuel shipments by 1998.

    The process has been stalled by politics, funding cuts, allegations of
quality assurance problems and legal challenges since President Bush gave
the go-ahead for the Yucca Mountain waste repository in 2002.

    Presidential candidates, Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary
Clinton, say they would kill the project, while Republican Sen. John McCain
called Yucca Mountain a "suitable site" for burying nuclear waste.

    The NRC's primary job will be to determine whether the proposed
repository design will protect public health, safety and the environment for
up to a million years.

    The application submitted Tuesday lacks a crucial standard to
establish how much radiation can leak from the dump.

    A federal court rejected an Environmental Protection Agency standard
designed to be protective for 10,000 years. The court said the agency must
establish a standard to be protective for up to 1 million years - the time
some of the isotopes in the waste will remain dangerous. The EPA has yet to
produce that document.

    Bodman said it wasn't a problem. The NRC, which can add an additional
year to its three years of hearings, can accept the EPA standard later as an
amendment but must have it to make its final determination.

    Edward F. "Ward" Sproat, Yucca Mountain project manager, confirmed
that the department now believes it could be 2020 before the waste site can
be opened, assuming the NRC grants a license. And he said even that target
might not me met if Congress does not provide a steady money stream.

    In recent years Congress has repeatedly cut Yucca Mountain funding in
part because of Reid's strong opposition.

    If the application is approved, it will take seven to eight years to
build the facility, Sproat said.

    About $6 billion has been spent in research and engineering at the
Nevada site, including construction of a 5-mile U-shaped exploratory tunnel.
The Energy Department estimates the lifetime cost of the facility could
reach $80 billion.

    This year Congress provided $386.5 million for the program, $108
million less than the Bush administration had wanted as it geared up for
submitting its application for a construction license. In 2007 the project
received $444 million.

    Reid said in a joint statement with the state's five-member
congressional delegation that they "will continue working ... to kill the
dump." Opponents say the waste should stay where it is until the best
long-term solution for dealing with it can be found.