WASHINGTON The Energy Department submitted an 8,600-page license application to build a nuclear waste dump in Nevada Tuesday, reaching an important milestone for the Yucca Mountain project but also opening the door for more controversy and legal action.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said he's confident the government's license application to build a nuclear waste dump in Nevada will "stand up to any challenge anywhere" but there is still a long process ahead before 77,000 tons of nuclear waste would potentially move through Utah to the Yucca site, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"Issues of health, safety and security have been paramount during this process. ... (They) are the driving factors in the decisions we have made," Bodman said.
But Nevada officials, who have fought the waste dump more than a decade, vowed to launch hundreds of specific challenges to the proposed design of the facility, arguing the Energy Department has not proven it will protect public health, safety and the environment from radiation up to a million years.
"As long as I am governor, the state will continue to do everything it can to stop Yucca Mountain from becoming reality," said Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons.
The application itself covers 17 volumes, with 200 other supporting documents and studies, and does not contain a final public radiation exposure standard that establishes how protective the facility must be from radiation leakage. The EPA had issued a standard designed to be protective for 10,000 years but a federal court declared it inadequate. EPA must create a standard shown to be protective for up to 1 million years the time some of the isotopes in the waste will remain dangerous but it has still not done so.
Bodman said he didn't think that was a problem. The NRC, which has three years to review the application, can accept it later as an amendment but must have it to make its final determination.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's primary job will be to determine whether the proposed repository's design will protect public health, safety and the environment for up to a million years.
NRC Chairman Dale Klein 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."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a vocal opponent, said in a statement he and other Nevada lawmakers "will continue working ... to kill the dump."
Views on the project within the Utah delegation are mixed. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, supports it, while Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, does not support it.
Reid, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Bennett, along with Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., introduced the Federal Accountability for Nuclear Waste Storage Act of 2007 in the House and Senate to keep nuclear waste at nuclear power facilities versus moving it to Nevada.
"I have long opposed this seriously flawed scheme to put the country's hottest nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain," Matheson said in a statement. "Transporting it through Utah's cities, towns and communities is unacceptable. Instead, I believe the federal government should not waste any more time on the Yucca repository and should instead consider interim on-site storage, as my legislation has proposed."
Edward F. Sproat, manager of the Yucca project, confirmed that the department now believes it may be 2020 before the waste site can be opened, assuming the NRC grants a license and Congress provides the project the money it needs to continue.
The site was supposed to open in 1998, but a series of legal, political and scientific controversies kept it from moving forward.
Yucca's delay forced Utah to fight its own battle over nuclear waste with the planned temporary storage site at the Goshute Indian Reservation in Tooele County. Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of companies looking for a place to store waste until the Nevada site opened, got a license from the NRC for temporary storage on the Goshute reservation. But the government voided the lease and did not give a right of way to land needed for a transportation hub, stopping the project.
President Bush and Congress gave Yucca the green light six year years ago. The Energy Department estimates the lifetime cost of the facility will be between $70 billion and $80 billion and about $6 billion has been spent so far.
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.
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