LAS VEGAS - A top Energy Department official told Congress that the government's plan to bury nuclear waste in Nevada won't be slowed by a court ruling on a radiation safety standard.
The department intends to pursue a waste repository license while scientists and designers adapt to new standards ordered by the court, deputy secretary Kyle McSlarrow told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.
Three U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit judges ruled Friday that the Environmental Protection Agency was wrong to set a 10,000-year radiation protection standard after a National Academy of Sciences study commissioned by Congress indicated the standard should be thousands of years longer.
In the Energy Department's first detailed remarks since the ruling, McSlarrow said the Yucca Mountain project can continue "absolutely."
The Energy Department's No. 2 official said there was no reason the department could not file a license application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of the year as planned, containing its safety projections for 10,000 years.
He said Energy Department and Nuclear Regulatory Commission conferred Monday, "and they don't see a reason why we can't either."
NRC spokeswoman Sue Gagner on confirmed talks between the agencies, but could not confirm details.
With an NRC license review scheduled to take three or four years, McSlarrow told senators the Energy Department believes it could supplement its application with new performance data if the EPA issues a new radiation standard.
Some senators said there was a possibility that Congress could pass a law reversing the court and keeping the 10,000-year standard.
Yucca opponents who declared victory when the court issued its ruling scoffed at the department's attempt to rebound.
"My comment is, good luck. I don't think this is going to fly in anyone's book," said Bob Loux, chief of Nevada's state Agency for Nuclear Projects.
Loux said it would be difficult for EPA to issue a new radiation standard in three or four years, and said Energy Department efforts would probably end up back in court.
The Energy Department wants to open the repository 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas in 2010. It plans to collect 77,000 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear reactor fuel and military and industrial waste from sites in 39 states and entomb it in tunnels 1,000 feet beneath the ground.
Yucca opponents "will make hay with what they got" from the court, McSlarrow told the senators. But he called the ruling overall "an enormous victory" for the government.
Judges rejected constitutional and procedural challenges by Nevada, environmental groups and the nuclear industry.
After the hearing, McSlarrow said the Energy Department has assurances that the Yucca program will get enough money this year to avoid layoffs.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham had said as many as 1,700 workers might lose their jobs this summer because of a possible congressional funding shortfall.