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From our archives: Yucca water rights denied

Updated July 3, 2017 - 1:52 pm

(Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on November 13, 2003. It is presented here as background as the government considers again whether nuclear waste will be sent to Nevada for storage.)

State Engineer Hugh Ricci has denied the Energy Department permanent rights to 140 million gallons per year of groundwater that the agency sought to build and operate the planned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

The denial is expected to be challenged by DOE attorneys because the water is vital to proceeding with the project. That challenge, however, won’t come until other Yucca Mountain issues raised by Nevada are decided by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.

Nevada attorneys agreed in December to allow temporary use of water at the Yucca Mountain site to refill four, potable water storage tanks for restroom facilities and emergencies but not for constructing a repository.

Nevada Senior Deputy Attorney General Marta Adams said Wednesday that Gov. Kenny Guinn’s formal disapproval of the Yucca Mountain Project last year and his resolve to carry out his duty to protect Nevadans weighed heavily in Ricci’s decision.

“I’m pleased that the engineer denied the application and feel that he did essentially what he was required to do by the court, which was to determine the public interest in the state of Nevada,” Adams said.

Guinn’s veto of the project was overridden by Congress on July 9, 2002. In the aftermath, U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt directed Ricci to determine whether permanent use of the water for a repository to entomb the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and highly radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was a beneficial use in the public interest of Nevadans.

In his ruling Friday, Ricci said granting rights to water from five wells in Nye County that DOE had used to study the site “would threaten to prove detrimental to the public interest.”

“The use of water as proposed … is not a beneficial use of the public’s water,” Ricci’s ruling states, citing Guinn’s rejection of the project.

His decision is the outcome of a hearing he held in August on the issue.

Ricci’s predecessor, Michael Turnipseed, had denied the DOE’s applications for water rights in 2000 on the same grounds. Justice Department attorneys appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which in turn sent the case back to U.S. District Court in Las Vegas.

Nevada Nuclear Projects Agency chief Bob Loux said Monday that Ricci’s decision was a victory for the state that can’t be challenged in federal court until the state’s Yucca Mountain cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit are resolved.

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