Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008 | 2 a.m.
As it happens so often with Yucca Mountain, today’s story is about water.
In the same breath that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made its long-awaited announcement Monday that it would accept for review the application for the nuclear waste repository in the Nevada desert, it asked for more studies on water.
The commission’s approval, in other words, came with an asterisk.
Yes, the 8,600-page application submitted by the Bush administration’s Energy Department was acceptable, the commission said. All the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.
But only if it is supplemented by an additional water study.
The commission will turn its army of scientists loose over the next four years to decide whether the nation’s nuclear waste dump should be built 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. For now, it wants to know more about the potential for radioactive toxins leaking into the water supply.
The commission is not alone.
Not long after scientists started considering the mountain as the potential dump for the nation’s nuclear waste, water became the potential problem. Scientists realized water would seep through the mountain in greater amounts than originally thought, making the rock an imperfect barrier against the canisters of radioactive waste that would be stored underground.
The Environmental Protection Agency also decided that too many cancer-causing toxins could reach the water system, and sent the Energy Department back to work to lower that risk.
Scientists now hope to block the water with a man-made system of barriers — titanium drip shields, whose job is to stop the water from hitting and corroding the canisters in a way that could spread their toxic cargo underground.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s announcement Monday was a milestone for the project.
Scientists at the Energy Department have been working tirelessly for this day — the chance when the project could be judged by science, not politics. Nevada has opposed turning the mountain into a waste dump and has fought the project every step of the way.
Twenty years and more than $9 billion later, many opponents believe the project is all but dead.
Yet by accepting the application, the commission opens a new chapter and will begin a four-year review, complete with courtroomlike hearings where the science will be debated.
The commission’s Michael F. Weber tried to put the moment in perspective, saying Monday’s announcement is a little like a young adult’s college acceptance: Just because the student gets in doesn’t guarantee he’ll walk across the stage in four years, diploma in hand.
“Accept for review does not mean approval,” Weber told reporters. “It will take several years of review to determine if the application complies.” And the water issue remains part of the equation.
Energy officials were celebrating the milestone, and were heartened by the commission’s assessment that it would take months — not longer — to compile the additional materials.
Deputy Project Director Chris Kouts said the Energy Department was reviewing the commission’s request for additional information, but “we don’t think it’s a significant item.”
Though the department’s funding is running short — much of this year’s budget was spent on getting the application to this point — Kouts anticipates sufficient funding when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 to conduct the supplemental work. Nevada’s lawmakers, however, have been instrumental in cutting funds, and could impede the Energy Department and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The commission said if its funding is cut, the approval process will drag beyond four years.
Bob Loux, the state’s point man on Yucca, who has been fighting the project for much of his professional life, said water has been the problem since the beginning. “There’s so much water that they never thought was there,” Loux said. “Water has been, and will continue to be, the issue.”
And if water doesn’t decide Yucca Mountain’s fate, perhaps the November presidential election will:
Republican Sen. John McCain has promised to support the project, while the Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, has vowed to withdraw the application.
Voters in Nevada, a swing state in the presidential election, could help decide.