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December 19, 2014

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Yucca license application is next round in 20-year battle

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The Energy Department has spent $10 billion over the past 20 years developing Yucca Mountain. Now, the agency is poised to file its 10,000-page license application. A review lasting as long as four years would then be conducted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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On the brink of what should be a milestone for the Yucca Mountain project, prospects for the nuclear waste dump outside of Las Vegas have never been more in doubt.

The Energy Department as soon as this week could deliver its long-awaited application to license the repository, a step that ordinarily would be among the most significant in its 20-year history.

But as has always been the case with Yucca, politics will intervene. Yucca Mountain’s future most likely will be decided not by the scientists reviewing the application in Washington but by the next resident of the White House.

The two Democratic presidential candidates, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, confirmed to the Las Vegas Sun that they would withdraw the government’s application if elected president. Such action is one of the surest ways to kill Yucca Mountain, government experts say.

Then again, Yucca could enjoy newfound support, as it did during the Bush administration, if presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain is elected.

Staff at McCain headquarters said the senator would do what it takes to build the waste dump in Nevada, reasserting his longtime advocacy of Yucca Mountain during a dicey week when he had momentarily suggested the repository may not be needed if waste could instead be shipped to Siberia.

For now, the project is limping along, underfunded and struggling for political support.

Bob Loux, who has been fighting the project for Nevada for much of his professional life, remains doubtful the dump can survive the scientific or political scrutiny coming in this phase.

Loux expects the nuclear industry’s interest in building interim waste sites across the country and the loss of Yucca’s chief supporters on Capitol Hill “may cause this purported celebration (over the application) to be short-lived.”

The Energy Department has spent decades developing the Yucca Mountain site and plans to file the application for the project, possibly this week. The application would face a three- to four-year review before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will unfold in a Nevada hearing room much like a court case, with witnesses and evidence presented by both sides.

The application was expected to go to the commission in 1989, to meet the repository’s planned opening in 1998. Another deadline was missed in 2004.

Now, $10 billion later, the department has developed a 10,000-page application detailing how it thinks spent nuclear fuel, coming mostly from the nation’s power plants, can be safely stored deep inside the mountain for the next 1 million years. Smaller amounts of defense waste would also be sent here.

Steven P. Kraft, senior director of used fuel management at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the main lobbying arm for the nuclear industry, said, “Filing this application for Yucca Mountain is a major milestone for the nation. And frankly it’s time to get along with the job.”

“What would possibly be (unknown) at this point?” Kraft said. “After all these years, it’s hard to imagine there is anything that hasn’t been fleshed out.”

But the state plans to file as many as 500 contentions against the application, challenging the science on various fronts, including what it sees as inadequacies in the government’s plan to shield Nevadans from cancer-causing radiation.

Because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is autonomous from the White House, experts have said a new president would have limited options for killing Yucca Mountain.

A president could, however, withdraw the Energy Department’s application or eliminate project funding.

Obama has previously pledged to redirect Yucca Mountain funding to alternative strategies, such as securing the waste where it now sits at power plants nationwide.

When asked whether Obama would withdraw the application as president, spokeswoman Shannon Gilson replied unequivocally in an e-mail: “Yes.”

Clinton spokesman Isaac Baker said the senator would “take whatever steps are necessary to end the project, including withdrawing the license application and cutting funding.”

McCain spokesman Jeff Sadosky said the senator still hopes waste could one day be sent overseas, even as the nuclear industry downplayed the viability of that option. But the candidate does think Yucca Mountain should be built, Sadosky said.

“John McCain understands that we need a site to secure spent nuclear fuel and if elected president would take the necessary steps to accomplish that at Yucca Mountain,” Sadosky said.

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