WASHINGTON — When it comes to legal matters of radioactive waste, $11.1 million doesn’t go very far. Lawyers already are battling over how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should spend what money it has to resume licensing for the Yucca Mountain site.
As the agency weighs how to comply with a federal court order to restart hearings on the proposed nuclear waste repository, attorneys for the state of Nevada are urging the commission to hold Yucca-related meetings in Las Vegas.
State officials also are calling for prompt reinstatement of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s “licensing support network,” the electronic library that provides Internet access to all documents related to the case.
But a lawyer for Nevada’s Nye County said those moves would be costly and would eat up much of the $11.1 million the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said it has available for Yucca Mountain.
“These actions would only further deplete … NRC funds to continue the licensing process,” said Robert Andersen, the county’s nuclear waste attorney.
Rather than spending on administrative costs, he said, money should be conserved “for the licensing process itself.”
Everyone agrees that $11.1 million is nowhere enough to complete a complex licensing process that is similar to an adversarial courtroom proceeding. In the Aug. 13 decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Merrick Garland noted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission once budgeted $99 million to move forward for just one year.
Repository proponents are pressing the commission to make it a priority to release unredacted versions of safety evaluation reports that might provide evidence whether the site can be safe for nuclear waste.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff has indicated it would take six to eight months and $6.5 million to complete those reports. Andersen urged original unredacted copies be released now “in the interest of fairness and transparency.”
It’s likely that when the $11.1 million is gone, so is the Yucca project that once envisioned burying 77,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste and spent reactor fuel within a mountain 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The site has been padlocked and its staff long dissipated after President Barack Obama shelved it in 2009.
The House has appropriated $25 million to continue Yucca licensing, but the Senate has zeroed out the program. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is expected to exercise his power to see that it remains zero.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not indicated how it might move forward on Yucca Mountain. Agency Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane is expected to respond to a legal motion that she recuse herself from the case because of previous comments and writings raising questions about the site.
In calling for hearings to be held in Las Vegas, Nevada attorneys said in a legal filing on Friday that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission headquarters in Rockville, Md., has no facility that can easily accommodate representatives for the 17 parties that would take part in licensing and for Nevadans who would have to travel to participate.
Plus, they said, holding the hearings near Washington “would engender a level of distrust in the licensing process.” It “would aggravate the perception that the distant federal government in Washington, D.C., is seeking to impose the burden of nuclear waste disposal upon a populace via a distant and non-transparent process.”
Previously the Nuclear Regulatory Commission leased a building near McCarran International Airport for Yucca Mountain hearings. It paid the equivalent of $467,000 in annual rent and spent at least $2 million more to install closed-circuit television, computer equipment, sound systems and airport-quality security scanners and metal detectors. It was closed in August 2011.
In another motion filed Friday, Andersen said any costs of resuming the hearings should be borne by the commission using administrative funds and not money appropriated for Yucca licensing.
The attorney said the licensing support network, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has estimated could cost $5 million to reinstate, might be unnecessary. He said all relevant Yucca documents are available on compact discs.
Andersen suggested that Yucca Mountain foes are proposing to spend freely to get the NRC back to work in a bid to “once again stop the licensing process by depleting the available funds.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.