Ruling halts Yucca Mountain plan

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Nevada officials praised an appeal court decision Friday on Yucca Mountain, proclaiming it a victory that should kill the project.

"Simply put, Yucca is stopped in its tracks because the court recognizes that the project isn't rooted in sound science," said Attorney General Brian Sandoval, echoing President Bush's words when he promised in 2000 to base his decision on the nuclear-waste dump on "sound science."

While Gov. Kenny Guinn didn't go that far, he said the ruling was a setback that would at least delay the project for years.

The Washington, D.C.-based court rejected most of Nevada's arguments, including a challenge to the constitutionality of Congress' resolution ordering construction of the radioactive-waste repository in the remote Nevada desert.

The court supported only one point in Nevada's challenge: that the Environmental Protection Agency ignored a law requiring it build a dump site that meets the National Academy of Science findings. The academy says the waste must be isolated for at least 300,000 years - the length of time it will remain dangerous to life on earth.

EPA's regulation requires the Department of Energy prove the dump will keep the waste isolated only for 10,000 years.

"It unabashedly rejected NAS's findings and went on to promulgate a dramatically different standard, one that the academy had expressly rejected," the court ruled.

The court ordered EPA to revise its standards to match the NAS findings, a process that could take several years, or return to Congress and get permission to ignore them, a prospect that observers called unlikely.

"It was Congress that required EPA to rely on NAS's expert scientific judgment and, given the serious risks nuclear waste disposal poses for the health and welfare of the American people, it is up to Congress - not EPA and not this court - to authorize departures from the prevailing statutory scheme," the court said.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham had a very different take on the ruling, saying he was pleased.

"The court rejected the state of Nevada's challenge to the constitutionality of the resolution approving Yucca Mountain and dismissed the state's petition attacking the actions of the administration that led to the passage of that resolution by Congress," he said.

He added that the Energy Department will address the radiation standard rejected by the court and move forward with the project, which would send 77,000 tons of radioactive waste from sites around the country to a massive repository buried inside Yucca Mountain, which is located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas

Sandoval and Guinn said they don't think DOE can fix the problem because it would require throwing out the safety rules.

"This is a critical issue," said Guinn. "It's the safety of the people of this country that counts."

"If they can't get this approval, then they can't get licensing, and if they can't get a license you don't have a project."

Sandoval said even the former head of the Yucca project, Lake Barrett, testified at one point DOE could not meet the tough NAS requirement. Sandoval said he doesn't think DOE will ever be able to prove Yucca Mountain safe for 300,000 years.

The repository was scheduled to open in 2010, but it first must obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The three judges who made Friday's decision, a panel of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, were Harry Edwards, Karen Henderson and David Tatel.

Bush's promise to make his decision on "sound science" has become an issue in this year's presidential campaign, with Democrats charging he lied to the people of Nevada and approved the project almost as soon as it arrived on his desk.

Republicans raised the issue themselves when the party broke with their governor and congressional delegation this year and included a platform plank calling for the state to accept that the dump is inevitable and to seek compensation from the federal government for taking it.

Contact Geoff Dornan at or 687-8750.


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