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October 25, 2014

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Crucial time in fight against Yucca, Las Vegas officials are told

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BLOOMBERG NEWS FILE

The U.S. Energy Department plans to store spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, an extinct volcano about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

With court appeals, a bill in the U.S. Senate and the possible resumption of licensing hearings all in play, the next three months will prove critical in determining the future of Yucca Mountain as a repository for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste, executive director of the state Agency for Nuclear Projects Bob Halstead told the Las Vegas City Council Wednesday.

Halstead normally provides his annual update on Yucca Mountain to the council in December, but after last month’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ordering the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to restart the proceedings to license for the site, the briefing was moved up.

Halstead laid out four elements affecting Yucca Mountain that could see significant movement in the coming months.

The first major deadline is Sept. 27, a date by which the state must decide whether to file a petition asking the federal court that issued the licensing order to revisit the issue with its full slate of eight judges.

The state must also submit its comments to the NRC regarding how it thinks the licensing process should proceed by Sept. 30.

Halstead said the state is focusing on several issues in the licensing process, including a request that the hearings be held in Nevada and that they be overseen by a panel of administrative law judges.

In October, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is scheduled to review a nuclear bill that includes several items that would affect Yucca Mountain, most importantly a clause that would allow states or other municipalities to volunteer to host the nation’s high-level nuclear waste storage site instead of Nevada.

The NRC will also likely discuss in October how it will proceed with licensing given the limited funds it has available to administer the process.

Halstead said the Yucca Mountain issue has been out of the public eye for more than a year while the court deliberated. Now that a ruling has been made, he said it’s time to re-educate the public about the issues at hand, including the risks associated with transporting high-level nuclear waste through the valley to the Nevada National Security Site and the geological risks that make Yucca Mountain an unsafe and unsuitable repository.

“If a nuclear waste repository was a safe and profitable enterprise, someone would have taken it away from Nevada a long time ago,” he said. “The site at Yucca Mountain is almost by any international standard one that would not be under consideration ... it just was a bad site to begin with.”

He said he plans to report back in December with more information.

Although the Las Vegas City Council has no direct influence on the issue, council members expressed concern, especially about the prospect of potentially dangerous nuclear waste traveling through the valley by rail or truck.

Councilman Bob Coffin recounted stories of watching above-ground nuclear tests at the then Nevada Test Site in the 1950s and the assurances made by the federal government that people wouldn’t be exposed to radiation.

“And yet many times those clouds came over Southern Nevada and they killed thousands of people in Utah. They have killed people in northern and eastern Nevada through increased (incidence) of cancer.”

Coffin credited Sen. Harry Reid for blocking development on Yucca Mountain, but warned the region could be in “serious trouble” when he leaves office. Still, Coffin said it’s important for elected officials and residents to continue fighting efforts to locate the repository in Nevada.

“We fight these things from a historical perspective as well as a common sense perspective,” he said.

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