WASHINGTON — The Energy Department moved a step closer Wednesday to getting the public land it needs to build a railroad that would take nuclear waste across Nevada to Yucca Mountain, illustrating why Utah lawmakers wanted Congress to approve the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area so badly.

The Bureau of Land Management withdrew about 308,600 acres of land in the state from sale, surface entry or mining claims for 10 years, according to a notice in Wednesday's Federal Register. This will allow the Energy Department to study a mile-wide corridor to decide where it can build a rail line to the proposed federal nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The bureau would still need to grant the department a right-of-way to actually construct a railroad, but Wednesday's announcement allows the department to prepare an environmental impact statement studying how building a railroad would affect the land there. Grazing permits, public access and other current uses of the land would not be affected but no new permits will be allowed.

Highlighting the intent of the Utah wilderness legislation, Wednesday's notice specifically prohibits certain wilderness study areas in Nevada from the withdrawal. Once officially designated, the land included in the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area would have more protection than if it were just regular BLM land. This 100,000-acre area, which is awaiting the president's signature, would include land where Private Fuel Storage wants to build its own rail line to move spent nuclear fuel rods to Goshute Indian land in Tooele County.

PFS, a consortium of utilities with nuclear fueled power plants, wants to store 40,000 ton of nuclear waste on Goshute land until it can be moved to Yucca Mountain, which is eight years overdue in opening.

The lawmakers say the wilderness designation virtually eliminates PFS rail option, although the consortium is not so sure yet.

PFS can still move nuclear waste to the site via truck, but the congressional delegation says it is working on a plan to stop that as well.

The Energy Department first requested the Nevada land withdrawal in 2003, just a few days after announcing it preferred the Caliente corridor if it were to move waste via train. It originally wanted the land to study for 20 years but then opted for 10 years instead.

Dennis Samuelson, a real estate specialist with BLM in Reno, Nev., said the department completed an environmental assessment that found no impacts would occur if the BLM approved the withdrawal. BLM will base its decision on its environmental study, specifically looking at the railroad, although other agencies are involved with that study too.

Nevada is waiting for the outcome of a federal court case argued in Washington in October. Attorney Joe Egan, who handles Yucca issues for the state, argued that the department did not follow environmental laws properly when it made the decision to move waste via train.


E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com