NRC official sees delay judging license for Nevada nuclear dump

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LAS VEGAS (AP) - The Energy Department's 2010 target for opening a national nuclear waste dump in Nevada might be pushed back five years to allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission time to evaluate the project, a commission member said Wednesday.

Commissioner Edward McGaffigan said the delay may be necessary while a decision is made about a radiation protection standard that a federal appeals court rejected earlier this month. McGaffigan's comments were made during a meeting of the NRC's Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste in Rockville, Md.

Commission Chairman Nils Diaz said agency lawyers were trying to determine the commission's responsibilities for evaluating a license to operate the Yucca Mountain repository following the July 9 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

"We are waiting for a clear legal opinion," Diaz said.

The Energy Department still intends to file a license application this year to build and operate the nuclear waste dump. It expects NRC approval for the project's design within four years, and initial construction to take three years.

"We are at the stage right now where we are preparing a license application for the end of the year, and we will meet that deadline," Energy Department and Yucca Mountain spokesman Allen Benson said Wednesday.

Tunnels would continue to be drilled at the site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, during the 24 years the government expects to entomb 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and highly radioactive military and industrial waste from 39 states.

The court rejected an Environmental Protection Agency standard limiting radiation from the site for 10,000 years. If the ruling stands, EPA would have to set a stricter safety standard - for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years - and the Energy Department would have to shape its repository design to meet that standard.

McGaffigan said it could be 2007 or later before the question is resolved by an appeals court decision, congressional action or a new EPA rule.

The commission might still take the license if the department sends it in December, he said, but NRC staff would then have to determine how much it could evaluate.

Under federal law, the commission has three years to judge the application, and Congress can grant a fourth. McGaffigan said the commission might not start the clock until a final decision on the radiation standards is made.


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