Washington state continues push to halt Yucca shutdown

WASHINGTON -- The state of Washington urged federal judges Tuesday to stop the Department of Energy from taking any further steps to shut down the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project, including transfers or layoffs of dozens of remaining employees in Las Vegas.

Rob McKenna, Washington state's attorney general, filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction against the shutdown from judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The motion accompanied yet another lawsuit challenging the Energy Department's authority to end the program without permission from Congress.

If granted, the injunction would be the strongest reaction to date to the Obama administration's efforts to pull out from the Nevada site, which had been the focus of the government's nuclear waste management efforts for the past two decades.

President Barack Obama had declared his opposition to the Yucca site and authorized steps to shelve it permanently. The move was perceived to be a favor to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., an Obama ally who had battled the site for years in the belief it would threaten the safety of constituents and risk ruining the Las Vegas economy.

But officials from Washington state, South Carolina and other locations where nuclear waste is being stored have mounted challenges to the decision in the courts and before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission .

The lawsuit filed by Washington state is the fourth one against the Department of Energy.

McKenna asked that it be consolidated with ones filed by the state of South Carolina, Aiken County, S.C., and three businessmen who live near the Hanford nuclear reservation, where millions of gallons of radioactive waste intended for disposal in the repository is stored.

The Department of Energy's reaction to Washington's legal move was the same as it has been to other legal challenges in recent weeks.

"We are confident we have the legal authority to withdraw the application for the Yucca Mountain repository," spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said. "We look forward to resolving this issue promptly in any appropriate forum."

The appeals court has directed the Department of Energy to respond to the injunction motion by Thursday, a quick turnaround that suggests judges might be preparing to rule quickly one way or the other, officials said.

Bruce Breslow, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said attorneys expected that some party would seek an injunction to halt shutdown activities while the courts and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission consider the administration's request to bring the project to a halt.

The Washington state motion asks the court to "require DOE to refrain from any action or inaction to terminate the Yucca Mountain Project in any fashion."

Breslow said the motion could be read to mean the Energy Department would be stopped from carrying out transfers of the remaining project personnel. The department in March sent "notices of expected separation" to 180 federal workers in Nevada and Washington.

According to the Washington state lawsuit, the Department of Energy was scheduled on Friday to terminate the contract of its management and operations firm, USA-Repository Services, which would carry out its own "employee separations" in May and June.

Congress authorized the Department of Energy to search for and develop a nuclear waste repository in a 1982 law, Washington state said. But, it added, "without Congress having changed a word of the statute, DOE is on its own initiative undertaking to dismantle the only repository program approved by Congress.

Breslow said he saw "sad irony" in the lawsuits.

"Ironically the state of Washington and the state of South Carolina say they are being harmed because the people of their areas could be exposed to high levels of radiation if the waste stays there, yet they want to bring it to Nevada," Breslow said.

"They are saying it is not safe for their own state, but they want it to come here. I find a sad irony there."

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.