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NRC to hear almost all of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain concerns

In a victory for Yucca Mountain opponents, nearly all of the more than 300 formal concerns raised by parties challenging the Department of Energy’s license application for the planned nuclear waste disposal site in Nevada were accepted Monday for review by federal safety regulators.

Administrative judges for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards allowed 299 out of 318 contentions in a lengthy order that granted the states of Nevada and California permission to participate in license hearings, as well as Clark County and rural counties near the site.

Bruce Breslow, executive director of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects and a leading Yucca Mountain opponent, praised the order.

“This is a huge victory for the state of Nevada and a crushing blow to DOE’s efforts to steam roll the state in the licensing process.” Breslow said in an e-mail.

DOE Yucca Mountain Project spokesman Allen Benson acknowledged the licensing boards’ order, saying only, “We are reviewing it.”

The ruling sets the stage for wide-ranging legal sessions before multiple NRC judicial boards over the Department of Energy’s application to build and operate a repository for 77,000 tons of highly radioactive material 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The proceedings are expected to last at least four years.

The number of contentions that will be weighed is believed to be a record for an NRC license review. The 153-page order allowed all but seven of Nevada’s 229 contentions, including those about future climate conditions, waste container corrosion and groundwater contamination.

Breslow noted that DOE officials had argued in preliminary hearings this year that none of Nevada’s contentions were acceptable and the NRC staff had said as well that only 19 had merit.

The state also will be allowed to argue that there have been gaps in the department’s plans for transporting the radioactive material across the country to Yucca Mountain. Lawyers for Clark County will be allowed to raise points that DOE ignored the project’s impact on public safety and the economy of Las Vegas.

Monday’s ruling “says we’re going to have a very thorough hearing, and the judges are going to give the parties a very full chance to argue,” NRC spokesman David McIntyre said.

The hearing process could become a moot exercise though.

President Barack Obama, at the urging of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the rest of Nevada’s delegation, followed through with a campaign promise that Yucca Mountain would no longer be an option for disposing the nation’s highly radioactive waste.

Obama’s budget, released last week, put the Yucca project on course for financial termination. It proposed to spend $196.8 million for the project in 2010, the lowest amount ever and more than $100 million less than this year’s appropriation.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said the rationale for continuing the licensing review is to get a better grasp on scientific issues surrounding nuclear waste disposal and to know what to expect when a license application is submitted for a future site.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said that real disputes over Yucca Mountain’s performance remain.

“Nevadans remain committed to this fight and we support the efforts of the state, Clark County and the other parties that have joined in the battle to keep our home from being turned into a nuclear garbage dump,” she said in a statement.

The licensing boards accepted 13 of 15 contentions submitted by Clark County.

“This process is vital to the health and safety of Southern Nevadans,” said Susan Brager, vice-chairwoman of the Clark County Commission who also serves on the Nevada Nuclear Projects Commission. “We intend to be an active participant throughout the entire process.”

 

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault @stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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