CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada's decades-long effort to stop high-level nuclear waste from being stored at Yucca Mountain is nearing a pivotal juncture as it heads toward all-but-certain victory, according to a state official who said Tuesday it was still too soon to declare the fight won.
The U.S. Court of Appeals ruling on resuming the licensing process of the repository about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas may only serve to delay the inevitable termination of the project, the state official charged with leading the fight told Nevada lawmakers.
"Even if the case is ordered to go forward, it's a slower and lingering death," said Bob J. Halstead, executive director of the Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects. "We're prepared to bloody them."
Halstead, appearing at the first Senate Finance Committee meeting of the 2013 Nevada Legislature, presented the agency's budget, which requests about $2.5 million during the next biennium for the agency budget.
If the fight is prolonged, Halstead estimated the agency would need about $9 million annually to fight the waste site. Some senators on the committee said even more would be necessary.
"The $9 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the money to challenge Yucca Mountain," said Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas. "With something further, I presume we would have to go to the contingency fund."
A bill to place a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain was signed into law in 1987 and more than an estimated $15 billion was spent on the site that was never completed. Progress has been stagnant for the past three years because President Barack Obama and Congress all but pulled the plug on the initiative. The Department of Energy attempted to withdraw the application from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and no congressional funds were appropriated for the project.
The lawsuit against the NRC, filed by supporters of the Yucca Mountain project, said the agency failed to put forth a reasonable effort to uphold the 1987 law after Obama's closure efforts. At the time of the shutdown, the commission cited "budgetary limitations" due to the lack of congressional funds.
"The Yucca Mountain project is hanging by a slender thread," Halstead said. "If this case goes against the NRC, it keeps the project alive, but without any new resources."
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission simply can't pay the project's enormous bills without an appropriation, he added. Yucca Mountain has been almost universally opposed by Nevada's elected officials, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Should the court rule to continue the licensing process as Hallstead expects, vetting the more than 200 challenges filed against the project would likely take four to five years. Those challenges are not just coming from Nevadans, Halstead said.
"For the first time in almost 30 years, there are serious efforts under way nationally to find solutions to the nuclear waste problem that do not involve Yucca Mountain," he told committee members.
An estimated 72,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is being stored at operating and closed reactors in 35 states as officials seek a long-term storage solution.