June 3, 2008 in Nation/World

Nuclear dump site application complete

H. Josef Hebert Associated Press

WASHINGTON – After years of delay, the Bush administration will submit a formal license application today to build a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, government officials said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have three years to review the application, although it could extend that an additional year if needed. The agency’s primary responsibility is to determine whether the design as proposed will protect public health, safety and the environment.

The Energy Department informed key members of Congress and the NRC of its plans on Monday. A truck is to deliver tens of thousands of pages of documents to the NRC offices in Rockville, Md., this morning to back up the application, which itself covers 17 volumes.

President Bush gave the go-ahead for the Yucca waste repository, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, six years ago. It is being designed to hold 77,000 tons of waste, mostly used reactor fuel from nuclear power plants.

About $6 billion has been spent in research and engineering at the Nevada site to determine whether it can safely hold the highly radioactive waste for as long as a million years.

But the Yucca project has seen years of turmoil as its projected completion repeatedly has been postponed and its license application – a critical step in the process – delayed. Department officials now say they hope to have the underground site completed by about 2020.

The application prepared for the NRC lacks a key element: a final public radiation exposure standard that has yet to be completed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The standard will be added later when the EPA completes it.

In a notification sent to Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., the department called the license application “an important milestone for all Americans” and noted that a 1982 law on nuclear waste required the federal government to consolidate used reactor fuel being stored at commercial power plants.

Similar notifications were sent to other key lawmakers.

But Berkley and other Nevada politicians have been adamant in trying to block construction of the Yucca Mountain dump, arguing the Energy Department has yet to prove the waste can be kept there safely.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has made sure the Energy Department doesn’t get the money it wants for the program. Reid has called the Yucca project “a dying beast” and said he hoped the budget cuts “will drive the final nail into its coffin.”

This year Congress provided $386.5 million for the program, $108 million less than the Bush administration had wanted as it geared up for submitting its application for a construction license. In fiscal 2007 the project received $444 million.

The federal government under the 1982 law is contractually required to accept the spent fuel from commercial power plants. It was supposed to have a central repository available for fuel shipments by 1998.

Reid and other Nevada officials say the waste ought to stay where it is until the best long-term solution for dealing with it can be determined.

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