Nevada files challenge to Yucca license


A day after the Energy Department submitted its 8,600-page application to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, the state on Wednesday filed 21 pages of "get lost," asking regulators to reject the plan.

Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto filed the petition asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to send back to the DOE its application to construct and license the repository for high-level nuclear waste at the site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

"The whole world will be watching and judging whether the NRC is capable of a fair and full review. ... Many distant generations will look back at NRC's licensing decisions with gratitude or regret," Masto said.

The petition asks the NRC to reject the application on a number of grounds:

• There is no final radiation health protection standard against which the repository is to be evaluated. That alone, the state said, is enough to kill the license.

• A final design for the repository is absent.

• There is no final design for the canister system intended to store, transport and dispose of spent fuel.

• Drip shields designed to delay corrosion of canisters won't be installed until 100 years after the waste is buried. They'll cost "many billions of dollars" by then and it's unknown whether government officials will even want to undertake the task.

Masto also said the Energy Department's application calls for keeping some elements of the Yucca Mountain Project secret, even from Nevada officials with security clearances, because of national security concerns.

"If accepted, DOE's assertion of authority to dictate to NRC what parts of the license application Nevada may be allowed to review would make a mockery of the NRC licensing process," the attorney general said in the petition. "The Congress never authorized DOE to file an application under these conditions."

Energy Department spokesman Allen Benson was brief in his response.

"We are confident that we have met the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's requirements for submittal of the license application," he said.

In Washington, Nevada lawmakers said they planned to sign a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission endorsing the state's bid to have the Yucca Mountain license application rejected for docketing.

Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., said he also wanted to organize a meeting where officials could take their case against the license application directly to the top NRC commissioners and deliver their letter in person.

Porter said he initiated contact with the commissioners' office "and they were very amenable to meet with the delegation. This takes it to another level."

There are four commissioners, with a fifth seat being vacant.

NRC officials were not available on Wednesday evening for comment. In earlier briefings agency spokesman David McIntyre said it would be unusual for the commissioners to involve themselves directly in a license matter at such an early stage where reviews are customarily performed by technical staff.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., contends the Energy Department submitted its application despite the gaps so the Bush administration would be able to show progress before it leaves office.

"This was an incomplete application, and the reason for that is the time of this administration is running out, and there was enormous pressure to get something filed," Berkley said.

The Nevadans also questioned whether the Energy Department and the NRC would have money available to carry out a comprehensive multi-year license review.

NRC chairman Dale Klein told an energy forum on Tuesday that the agency lacks the funds to complete a Yucca license review within four years, as called for in federal law.

"If they expect us to maintain that three- to four-year time frame, we will have to have the financial resources to do it," Klein said, according to a Reuters report. "Otherwise it will take longer."

There is no penalty if NRC fails to finish in four years, and many experts believe it will take the agency years longer to complete a complex Yucca Mountain license case.

But as Nevada lawmakers were strategizing against the repository, a group of state and industry officials who favor its completion said the Energy Department finally submitting its bid should energize DOE allies on Capitol Hill.

Members of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition said they plan new rounds of lobbying to revive bills that could increase federal funding to build the repository and take other steps to advance the project. The coalition consists of state utility regulators and attorneys general, electric utilities and vendors from states where nuclear waste is generated and stored.

"We're going to go where we need to go to educate members and to get what we think is necessary," said David Wright, a member of the South Carolina Public Service Commission. "Our goal is to advance the ball, and the license application advanced the ball."

"We have always been told that (Congress) needed to see DOE do something, and that nothing would proceed until the license application," Wright said, "Now we can go back and say what they never thought would happen has happened."

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he doubted DOE will get a big bump on Capitol Hill. He noted several key Yucca supporters are retiring or have cooled in their enthusiasm for the project.

"I don't know who will be energized," Reid said.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said the project has run out of gas in Congress.

"It does not have the momentum, and if it does not have Capitol Hill behind it, it has no chances to succeed," Ensign said.

Bob Loux, director of the state Agency for Nuclear Projects, said as much while joining Masto at a news conference in Carson City. For more than 25 years, he has been the state's primary lobbyist against Yucca Mountain.

He said key members of Congress and even some in the nuclear power industry now back construction of interim storage facilities where spent fuel roads would be stored. Then in the future, when technology has been perfected, the fuel rods would be reprocessed.

The repository would hold 77,000 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel rods generated at nuclear power plants across the nation.

But Loux said in about 40 years it will become financially advantageous to reprocess nuclear fuel.

The state also objects to the Energy Department's plan to store spent reactor fuel above ground on "aging pads" at Yucca Mountain. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act "expressly forbids" that type of storage, the petition said, adding the waste above ground "will be exposed to potential acts by terrorists."

Loux added state attorneys are prepared to file as many as 600 license challenges to proposals contained in the DOE application. Those would be in the form of contentions, such as technical challenges to science research and engineering designs.

The NRC will initially review the application for completeness. If the paperwork is in order, the agency would docket the application and start safety reviews that might take the next 11/2 years.

Though not present at the news conference, Gov. Jim Gibbons supports Masto's petition challenging the Yucca Mountain application, spokesman Ben Kieckhefer said.

"The governor strongly believes the Yucca Mountain project is not safe for the people of Nevada," he said. "He has been against Yucca Mountain since the beginning."

Masto and Loux said the application was submitted because of political considerations.

President Bush backs the project, as does presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama opposes the repository. Masto, a Democrat and a superdelegate to the summer convention, on Tuesday announced her support for Obama.

By submitting the application now, the DOE hopes the NRC will not summarily reject it, according to Loux.

That could have been the agency's position if a critic of the project was president, he added.

Contact Review-Journal Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.