Yucca application challenge fails


WASHINGTON -- Nevada failed on Friday in its bid for a quick take-down of the Department of Energy's application to build the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission declined to throw out the DOE's licensing packet, which is in the early screening stages at the safety agency. Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto had charged the application was incomplete and urged the NRC reject it out of hand.

It was the first of what are expected to be a number of attempts by Nevada to waylay the unpopular Yucca Mountain project during what could be a multiple-year NRC licensing process.

The NRC in a five-page order said the state's arguments "are premature." They could be considered later, after the agency decides whether to accept the application for docketing and more thorough reviews, the commissioners said.

The Energy Department has proposed to build an underground repository and above ground waste-handling complex to manage 77,000 tons of highly radioactive used nuclear fuel and weapons materials.

State officials question whether the nuclear site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas can be safe.

The DOE submitted its 8,600-page licensing package to the nuclear safety regulators on June 3.

The next day, Cortez Masto filed a 21-page complaint that the application was flawed on a number of grounds.

The application lacked final blueprints for the site and designs for waste canisters, she charged.

Also the Environmental Protection Agency has not yet issued radiation safety standards for the site, a key measurement that could determine whether the repository would be safe over tens of thousands of years.

Jacob Paz, a Las Vegas industrial hygienist, also demanded the license application be set aside.

He said it failed to consider the risks from heavy metals that would be present along with radioactive material at the site.

Paz's petition also was rejected.

Marta Adams, senior deputy attorney general, said the NRC ruling to defer judgment "once again shows it is not willing to stand up to the challenge of this application. To defer on something that has such large consequences is pretty much par for the course."

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the decision "confirms what we've always known -- this process is stacked against us, but we will never allow this fatally flawed idea to happen."

NRC commissioner Gregory Jaczko dissented in part from the order. He suggested the NRC delay docketing until the Environmental Protection Agency completes its part of the program.

Issues tied to radiation protection are found throughout the application, he said.

"I believe the application should not be docketed in the absence of a standard with which to measure the ultimate acceptability of the application," he said.

The Department of Energy had no comment on Friday. DOE officials in the past have said application is complete to be docketed.

NRC staff in the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards are expected to announce early next month whether the agency will move forward with the application following a 90-day screening for completeness.

A decision to docket the DOE application will launch a three-four year licensing process that would include legal hearings. In their ruling, the commissioners said Nevada's challenges could be aired then.

"It is not a sensible use of commission resources to evaluate the petitioners' legal and factual challenges to the application now," they said.

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