Friday, Jan. 23, 2009 | 2 a.m.
By all accounts, the plan to put a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain is all but dead.
The new president has said it is not safe to bury radioactive material 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has chipped away its funding for years, has vowed to zero out its budget this year. And the state has filed more than 200 legal objections to the long-overdue application to license the repository.
“But this is no time to unfurl the banner saying ‘Mission Accomplished,’ ” says former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, chairman of the Nevada Nuclear Projects Commission, which oversees the state’s fight against Yucca.
That’s exactly what many — including Democratic lawmakers at budget hearings in Carson City on Thursday — say Gov. Jim Gibbons is doing with his proposed state budget, which guts the office tasked with fighting the project and denies the attorney general funding for a suit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Some, including Bryan, said it makes them question Gibbons’ commitment to fighting Yucca.
“I don’t know where the governor is coming from,” Bryan said this week, adding that Nevada’s entire congressional delegation has come out firmly against the project. He thinks Gibbons never really has.
And if the budget crisis is the only reason for spending less on the fight, it’s still a bad idea, he said.
“This is not the time to be penny-wise and pound-foolish,” he said. “This is at a very critical stage and Nevada has to be fully prepared.”
A spokesman for Gibbons said the governor’s commitment to the fight is beyond reproach.
Gibbons’ budget cuts are in response to a $2 billion revenue shortfall for the next two years.
His proposed budget would eliminate five of seven jobs in the Nuclear Projects Agency. The two remaining employees would lose their office space and move into the governor’s offices.
The budget also allocates $13.8 million to the agency over two years, mostly for outside contracts with legal firms. Bob Loux, former director of the agency, said it will take at least $20 million over the next two years to keep up the fight.
The governor’s budget also allocated $93,000 each year to attorney general’s office, which requested $2.5 million each year for outside legal counsel.
Marta Adams, deputy attorney general, said the state can’t abandon its lawsuit against the EPA, and plans to file another lawsuit, against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, this year. There is no way $186,000 will cover that bill, she said.
If Congress does repeal the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which created the Yucca project — the only way opponents say the project would ever be truly dead — the attorney general’s office could return unused money to the state, Adams said.
“This beast isn’t dead yet, unfortunately,” she said. “When it is, we would be in a position to return any funding the Legislature has given us, but in the meantime we can’t really stop.”
The funding for the attorney general’s office is the same as in 2008, countered Andrew Clinger, Gibbons’ budget chief.
But Adams says the Energy Department’s license application to build the repository was filed in 2008 and the EPA released its standard for how much radiation could be released from the mountain over time. Those events kicked off a slew of new potential legal challenges.
Still, Clinger said, there’s no reason the attorney general’s office can’t share the $13.8 million allocated to the Nuclear Projects Agency.
Actually, there is a reason. About three-quarters of the $13.8 million in funding for the agency is federal. Federal dollars can’t be spent on outside litigation, only on fighting the Energy Department’s license application. That funding is useless to the attorney general in her battles with the EPA and Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Still, Clinger says the money should be enough to get the job done.
“I don’t know how you can say (the agency) is being shut down when they have $13.8 million in there,” he said. “I think it was an overreaction.”
But Loux, who resigned from his position at the agency after he gave himself and his staff unauthorized pay raises, said Clinger “wouldn’t have any clue as to what it would take to prosecute a case before the (Nuclear Regulatory Commission). He’s a bean counter and knows nothing about the process,” Loux said. “The new director doesn’t either, and the governor doesn’t. I don’t think they’re in a position to be making judgments in the place of the attorney general. They simply don’t have a clue.”
Loux also said that cutting all but two positions at the agency would be a serious mistake, especially because Gibbons recently appointed a new director with no experience in energy issues, environmental law or the history of the Yucca Mountain project.
In an interview with the Sun this month, Bruce Breslow, the former television reporter and Sparks mayor who took over the agency last week, said he would rely on staff to help get him up to speed on Yucca. But Loux and others said that with no staff left to rely on, Breslow, no matter how enthusiastic, would be hamstrung.
Breslow declined to comment on the budget this week. He referred a reporter to Bryan for comment.
“Without those positions I just don’t know how the office can function, particularly when we are so close to a turning point that could mean the ultimate collapse of the Yucca Mountain project,” Bryan said.
Legislative Democrats have vowed that funding for the agency and litigation to fight the project will be restored.
“His budget is not the answer,” state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford said. “The significant reduction of this office is an example of how it is not the answer.”
Horsford said legislators’ bipartisan effort to craft a better budget began with Thursday’s hearings in Carson City.
Loux said he hopes the message that Nevadans will not accept the nation’s nuclear waste comes across more clearly in that budget than in the governor’s.
“We should be sending the message to the federal government that we are still serious,” Loux said. The governor’s budget “advertises to the (Energy Department) and the nuclear industry that the resolve to continue this fight is just not there anymore, at least not on his part.”