Nuclear waste committee warned not to trust feds

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Don't try to negotiate with the federal government over the proposed nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada legislators were warned Tuesday.

Some officials, including Sens. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, and Lawrence Jacobsen, R-Minden, have argued the state should negotiate instead of fight every step of the way to make sure Nevada gets as much as possible when the dump is finally approved.

But Bob Loux, director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said the evidence shows Nevada should never trust the Department of Energy to keep its word.

Loux said when DOE proposed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, project east of Carlsbad, N.M., to store transuranic wastes, they promised New Mexico everything from veto power to monetary compensation. But over the 15 years it took before that project was built, he said, federal officials consistently reneged on those promises while holding New Mexico to its promise to negotiate.

"New Mexico's relationship with DOE on WIPP is one that is characterized by broken promises, repeated failures to live up to commitments, even court-stipulated agreements, and political gamesmanship," Loux reported to the committee.

He said DOE's conduct confirms much of what has happened to Nevada and what Nevada can expect if it tries to negotiate with DOE over Yucca Mountain.

"From the initial promise of a state veto over the project to promises about waste transportation to commitments about financial compensation, DOE consistently followed a pattern of appearing to agree to state requests, then systematically backing away form those commitments and promises," Loux told the Legislative Committee on High Level Radioactive Waste. But since New Mexico initially agreed to take the project and negotiate an agreement, he said, the state was effectively put "on a slippery slope" and couldn't avoid the dump even though DOE fought to break all of its original commitments.

He advised the committee to maintain "an arms-length adversarial relationship" with the energy department.

"The governor and our congressional delegation are in complete agreement with this position," he said.

Loux said Nevada has had numerous similar problems with DOE and warned that licensing and permitting hearings before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be an uphill battle since NRC staff will be advocating for DOE to get its permits.

"This is anything but a fair and objective process when you have a federal agency advocating for another federal agency," he said. "DOE almost doesn't have to show up."

John Egan, the special deputy attorney general hired to fight attempts to force the Yucca Mountain dump on Nevada, gave the committee headed by Assemblyman Harry Mortenson, D-Las Vegas, what he said was better news. Egan said the state has five legal actions moving forward in the Washington, D.C., appellate court and that Nevada has won rulings that allow it to bring in documents crucial to proving the Department of Energy broke the law.

"There seems to be a conscious effort to hide the best documents, but we have them and some of them are quite astonishing," he told lawmakers.

In a key ruling, he said, the justices have agreed to hear the cases on their merits, which means they won't be blocked from arguing Nevada's side by some technical legal maneuver.

Egan also said three of the five lawsuits have been combined and he is hoping the others can be as well.

"We want the court to hear all of these cases at the same time so they'll see the big picture," he said.


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