Monday, Jan. 14, 2008 | 4:47 p.m.
WASHINGTON — That slipping sound you hear is the Yucca Mountain project, as project officials brace to miss their next big deadline.
The Energy department’s top Yucca Mountain official told the Sun this afternoon that he might blow the June 2008 deadline to submit the project’s license application.
In fact, there might not be a Yucca Mountain application at all this year.
“I can’t promise anybody that I can make that date,’’ Director Edward Sproat by phone. “I don’t know yet whether we can make that date or it’s totally out the window.”
Missing the milestone could spell disaster for the project. Every Democratic candidate opposes putting a nuclear waste dump in the Nevada desert, and the department has been pushing to submit the application while the Yucca-friendly President Bush was still in the White House.
Missing the deadline also carries symbolic weight — much like the chain link fence that went up at the site several weeks ago. The Energy department blew this deadline nearly four years ago and patience is running low among Yucca Mountain’s supporters on the Hill. The project is 20 years behind schedule.
Sproat said he had no choice but to scale-back after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid engineered steep budget cuts last month. Reid cut more than 20 percent from the project’s anticipated $495 million.
Sproat said the $100 million reduction was a “significant and severe” cut. Already, 63 site workers are being laid off to save $10 million. More reductions from the 2,700 person workforce are expected. When asked how many more layoffs would come, he suggested doing the math, figuring costs of at least $200,000 per employee. (My estimate says as many as 500 positions being cut.)
To make matters worse, the department had been burning through cash since the start of the fiscal year in October. Sproat couldn’t say how much of the $390 million budget remains. He should have a more complete picture of the challenges ahead in the next six to eight weeks.
Always upbeat, the director said he is still aiming for June, but “whether or not we can do it by June or the end of the fiscal year or at all in calendar year 2008, I don’t know yet.”
Sproat added, “I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll be able to get a license application done sometime during the calendar year.”