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YUCCA MOUNTAIN:

Rail line hangs on hearing

Updated Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008 | 1:01 p.m.

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The Energy Department shouldn’t be allowed to build rail lines in Nevada to carry high-level radioactive waste to Yucca Mountain until it first examines the repercussions of shipping the waste through other states, Nevada officials will argue today.

At the least, those plans need more extensive environmental review, a panel from the U.S. Transportation Department will be told at the hearing in Las Vegas.

The hearing began at 9 a.m. at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Las Vegas office, 3250 Pepper Lane. (See U.S. Sen. Harry Reid's testimony and U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley's testimony. )

“If the (Energy Department) proposal proceeds, one or more shipping casks of (nuclear waste) would be moving on a train somewhere in America virtually every day for five decades or longer,” according to advance remarks by Robert Halstead, a transportation adviser for Nevada’s Nuclear Projects Agency, which since the 1980s has fought federal government plans to convert Yucca Mountain to a nuclear waste storage facility.

Today’s hearing is being held by the federal Surface Transportation Board, an appointed three-member board that signs off on federal railway projects.

Halstead said the board should also hold hearings in cities through which waste shipments will travel by train.

Getting spent fuel rods from the nation’s scattered nuclear power plants to Yucca Mountain will affect 22,000 miles of track through 193 cities with a combined population of 39 million, he said.

Much of that waste would enter Nevada east of Caliente in rural Lincoln County, then cross through Nye and Esmeralda counties before looping south to Yucca Mountain.

Supporters of Yucca Mountain and the rail line from the sleepy desert town known for its defunct, mission-style railroad depot say nuclear waste is already being shipped across the country.

“This application has to do with a new route in Nevada, so it makes sense for them to focus on the audience here in Nevada,” said Paul Seidler, a senior director with the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear power industry group. “Moving spent nuclear fuel by rail is nothing new.”

The board is holding the hearing at the request of local governments. Still, Halstead insisted that the process is political.

In an interview, Halstead said hearings such as today’s should be held throughout the country, because three out of four congressional districts nationwide will have nuclear waste traveling through them, according to the government’s plan.

Yet, he said, the Energy Department “has made no effort to inform members of Congress ... Congress is going to be watching what the Surface Transportation Board does.”

Bob Loux, outgoing head of the Nuclear Projects Agency, characterized today’s board hearing as “just window dressing,” with the board just “going through the motions” of holding a public hearing.

Loux said the board should conduct public hearings across the United States and force the Energy Department to disclose, as he contends, that building a rail line from Caliente to Yucca Mountain will not eliminate nuclear waste shipments through Las Vegas. But he was not optimistic that anything would come of the hearing.

Loux said representatives of Las Vegas, Clark County and two rural counties, representatives of Nevada’s congressional delegation, environmental groups, Indian tribes and at least two railroads, as well as a nuclear energy industry group are also expected to testify today.

The board will rule on whether to approve the Energy Department’s application for a permit to build the rail line. It will also decide whether to accept the government’s environmental review of the Yucca Mountain project or require a new one.

The transportation board could require extensive mitigation of environmental and cultural effects on the 320 miles of rural Nevada the line will run through.

Loux said the board has not given any time frame for its decision.

Seidler said the board is likely to approve the Energy Department’s plans for the rail line and agree that environmental reviews that have been performed are sufficient.

On the larger front, Nevada faces a Dec. 19 deadline to challenge to the Energy Department’s license application, filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March. Attorneys for the state plan to file between 300 and 400 challenges, including 16 over transportation of waste to the mountain.

Halstead said the more contentious and serious challenges are over the safety of the canisters in which waste will be shipped, whether those canisters will corrode and leak once placed in the mountain and whether radioactivity will move through ground water to the outside environment.

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