Government studying aircraft threat at Nevada nuke dump

LAS VEGAS -- Federal officials on Friday downplayed the chance that aircraft including military bombers from Nellis Air Force Base could pose a threat to the Nevada site picked to bury the nation's radioactive waste.

"Potential plane crashes are not realistic obstacles to Yucca Mountain getting an (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) license, we believe," said Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis in Washington, D.C.

Davis said the Energy Department compiled a report last year for the NRC makes no conclusions about the danger posed by flights over the site.

"Above-surface work at the Nevada Test Site has coexisted with military training for years," Davis said. "Yucca Mountain is a below-ground facility with very limited aboveground facilities. We don't see that Yucca Mountain would make any change to that coexisting relationship."

The Nellis testing and bombing range encompasses the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear testing was conducted from 1952 to 1992. The Test Site is operated by the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration.

The aircraft threat report, compiled by the department's top Yucca contractor, Bechtel SAIC Co., called for more analysis of planes flying within 30 miles of Yucca Mountain -- the site Congress picked last year for a national nuclear repository.

The Energy Department plans to apply in late 2004 for a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to open and operate the repository beginning in 2010.

Plans call for entombing 77,000 tons of commercial, industrial and military radioactive waste 1,000 feet underground.

The federal government in March cited the danger of military flights when it rejected an Indian tribe's plan to store nuclear waste on the Goshute Skull Valley reservation near Salt Lake City. The site is between Hill Air Force Base and the Utah Test and Training Range.

Gayle Fisher, an Energy Department spokeswoman in Las Vegas, issued a statement Friday noting that the Goshute plan was for aboveground storage, while Yucca Mountain storage would be underground.

The statement said the number of flights over Yucca Mountain were difficult to determine. It said civilian flights pass to the southwest, military training takes place to the north and a limited number of military and Energy Department aircraft fly over Yucca Mountain.

Nevada officials who oppose the Yucca Mountain project characterized the issue as a serious obstacle to opening the repository.

U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., on Thursday asked Maj. Gen. Stephen Wood, Nellis Air Warfare Center commander, to say how a Yucca repository might affect training and military exercises.

"I have grave concerns that nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is going to have a dramatic impact on the training that our nation's pilots receive," Gibbons said.

The Air Force has not stated a formal objection to the Yucca project. But Pentagon officials have filed objections to any plans for nuclear waste transportation beneath Nellis airspace.


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