Cortez Masto seeks to block Yucca license

WASHINGTON -- Nevada's attorney general is asking a Senate chairwoman to prevent the Department of Energy from seeking a license to build a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste complex until the site is fully designed.

Any lack of final blueprints for the radioactive waste site "raises serious health and safety concerns" and also helps explain why the public lacks confidence in the Yucca project, according to Catherine Cortez Masto.

Cortez Masto made her request in a letter sent Wednesday to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., on an issue that appeared to resonate at an Oct. 31 hearing held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Boxer, the committee chairwoman, questioned the head of the Yucca Mountain Project at the hearing after being told that safety-related designs for the repository would be 35 percent to 40 percent complete by next summer when DOE plans to apply for a construction license.

The Yucca site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is being planned as a depository for 70,000 metric tons of high level nuclear spent fuel from commercial power plants and nuclear waste held by the government.

"You can't go ahead and build a house when its design is only 35 percent complete," Boxer charged to DOE official Ward Sproat.

Sproat said the site would be designed to the level that would be sufficient to show it is safe, and that to go further at this point would be overkill. Deeper design work would add little to understanding the site, he said.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission official Michael Weber told Boxer it is not unusual for nuclear project applicants to submit partial designs at licensing, and that the NRC would weigh whether DOE's application was sufficient.

But Boxer said Yucca Mountain was a first of its kind project that merited extra scrutiny.

"I was impressed by the level of understanding exhibited by the committee members," Cortez Masto, who testified at the hearing, said in her letter to Boxer.

"I ask you and the committee to prohibit the NRC staff from accepting for review any DOE licensing application that does not contain final designs for all the proposed Yucca Mountain facilities," the attorney general said.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also is seizing on the matter of Yucca Mountain blueprints. A spokesman said Reid is preparing questions for Boxer to forward to the Energy Department about what segments of the project will not be fully mapped by next summer.

"For instance, one of the elements they are leaving out is emergency response," spokesman Jon Summers said.

Cortez Masto also asked for Boxer's help to shake loose dozens of Yucca Mountain technical documents the state has been unable to obtain from the DOE.

The state official said the department refuses to make some available, while it cites legal privileges to shield others. The state is disputing the DOE reasoning.

Marta Adams, a deputy Nevada attorney general, said the documents are needed for the state to prepare for Yucca Mountain licensing hearings.

"They play hide the ball with us on just about everything," Adams said of the Energy Department.

DOE officials had no immediate comment on Friday.