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South Carolina attorney general to intervene in Yucca dispute

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina’s attorney general said Wednesday that he plans to press federal regulators to stick to long-standing plans to open a Nevada repository for thousands of tons of nuclear waste, much of which would come from a former weapons plant near the Georgia line.

Henry McMaster, the state’s top lawyer, says he will file a petition this week asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to intervene in a dispute over the Yucca Mountain site.

"South Carolina has a vested interest in insuring that the Yucca Mountain licensing proceedings continue, so that the spent fuel and other nuclear material now being temporarily stored in our state will be safely placed in the Yucca Mountain repository, as mandated by the United States Congress," McMaster said in a statement released Wednesday.

For two decades, the proposed site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas has been targeted to house the nation’s high-level nuclear waste, including more than 4,000 metric tons of waste from the federal Savannah River Site in South Carolina. For now, high-level waste is stored at 80 sites around the nation, typically at nuclear power plants or places like the Savannah River

The Savannah River Site, a former nuclear weapons complex near Aiken, opened in the early 1950s and once produced plutonium and tritium for atomic bombs. The site’s reactors have been shut down for more than 15 years.

In December the federal Government Accountability Office said it is cheaper to store nuclear waste in the short term in concrete casks at power plants, but that method would be more costly over time. The report said that approach would cost up to $34 billion during the next 100 years while the Yucca Mountain facility would cost at least $41 billion, noting that costs would rise when that waste has to be repackaged in the next century or a permanent repository is opened.

President Barack Obama, who pledged on the campaign trail to close Yucca Mountain, announced last week that his latest budget pulls the plug on the site’s funding. And Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said his department will withdraw its license application for Yucca Mountain by the end of the month, essentially nixing the project while a presidential commission studies where the waste should go.

Those actions prompted McMaster to say he would review South Carolina’s legal options, to keep his state from becoming the end of the line for the nuclear trash. The prosecutor, who is also seeking South Carolina’s Republican nomination for governor, says he has consulted with other attorneys general, as well as nuclear industry experts and local officials.

On Wednesday, McMaster said he may also take further legal action in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, if necessary.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has also weighed in, accusing the president allowing "old-style Chicago politics" to dictate the fate of the long-planned dump. Last week, Sanford said the president was trying to protect Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid’s seat while ripping off companies in South Carolina that have paid $1.2 billion to create the Yucca Mountain facility.

Last week, officials in Aiken County, home to the Savannah River Site, voted unanimously to file a federal lawsuit aimed at keeping the Yucca Mountain plans on track.

South Carolina state senators also rushed to action, last week signing onto a bill that would require utilities to send money to a state account — purportedly to create the state’s own nuclear dump — instead of the federal government to cover the costs of creating a nuclear waste repository. But legislators decelerated the effort a day later, after utilities said they could lose licenses to operate the nuclear reactors that account for nearly half of the state’s power production.

Spokeswomen for the White House and the Department of Energy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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