WASHINGTON -- The Department of Energy on Wednesday halted dismantling of the Yucca Mountain project, offering a 21-day timeout so federal judges can weigh the latest legal challenges to the planned scrapping of the nuclear waste project.
The freeze until May 5 appears to prevent for now the termination of the department's contract with USA Repository Services, the project's main operating company. According to a document filed in court, the Department of Energy was to issue a termination letter Friday, with the contractor stopping work immediately.
Also during the period, "we aren't planning to take any actions to eliminate positions, terminate contracts or cut the work force," DOE spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said.
Fewer than 600 workers remain on the Las Vegas-based project, which has been shrinking through transfers, layoffs and attrition since the Obama administration began bringing it to an end.
The Energy Department's offer to stop the shutdown temporarily was the latest move in the legal battle over the Obama administration's plan to recall a pending application to build a nuclear waste repository at the Yucca Mountain site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The department "agrees not to undertake further actions to effectuate a shutdown of the Yucca Mountain Project, including terminating employees, terminating contracts or instructing its contractor to end ongoing work," attorneys for the Department of Energy and the Justice Department said in paperwork filed with a three-judge panel at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
At the same time they offered the short-term freeze, the government attorneys also asked the judges for a time extension, until April 23, to answer the latest legal challenge to the shelving of the Nevada nuclear waste site.
The attorneys said the three-week pause should give the court time to consider a motion by Washington state's attorney general this week that seeks to halt the shutdown for a longer period through a legal injunction.
The judges accepted the Energy Department's offer a few hours later.
South Carolina and Washington state, where caches of nuclear waste destined for Nevada are being stored, have filed lawsuits to stop the administration.
Aiken County, S.C., and a trio of businessmen who live near the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington also have sued.
In explaining the Department of Energy's offer, spokeswoman Mueller said the department remains confident it has the legal authority to withdraw the construction application pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"However, the parties need some time to prepare, and the court needs time to consider the issues," Mueller said.
"We are proposing to halt temporarily any actions to shut down Yucca Mountain to provide that time."
In its filing, the Department of Energy said it would proceed to help Yucca Mountain employees who "of their own accord" have asked to be transferred to other parts of the department.
"This course of action is taken in the interest of minimizing potential harm to employees," it said.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the leading critic of the repository plan, who has worked with the Obama administration to redirect nuclear waste management strategy away from Yucca Mountain, said the three-week timeout and potential for a longer freeze through a court injunction "will only amount to a brief delay in the pending death of the Yucca Mountain Project."
"The reality of the situation hasn't changed," Reid said in a statement.
"The president and DOE remain committed to ending the project, the license application will be withdrawn, and as long as I continue to serve Nevada as the Senate Majority Leader, there will be no money made available for the project. Which, of course, alone kills it."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.