LAS VEGAS — Nevada lawmakers approved funds Wednesday for a new phase in the state’s 25-year fight to prevent the federal government from burying the nation’s nuclear waste beneath an ancient volcanic ridge about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The legislative Interim Finance Committee allocated almost $1.4 million to kick-start legal and technical work ahead of expected Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearings on the proposed Yucca Mountain repository.
“Approval of this request will send a message to the pro-Yucca forces that Nevada is not backing down,” Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects chief Robert Halstead told the panel, which included several state senators and assembly members representing nine rural Nevada counties that favor opening the repository.
Not everyone supported such a blunt message.
Assemblyman James Oscarson, R-Pahrump, said he wanted to make it clear his vote was to fund a research into safety concerns about the dump. Oscarson represents Nye County, a vast rural area where the repository would be located and a party in a lawsuit that led an appellate court to rule that federal regulators have to make a decision whether the Yucca Mountain project lives or dies.
Halstead and Marta Adams, a chief deputy state attorney general, told the panel that the state needs to prepare in coming weeks to respond quickly to the publication beginning in November of a five-volume repository safety evaluation report.
A three-judge panel of Atomic Safety and Licensing Board judges could begin hearings early next year, Halstead said.
The full slate of licensing hearings is expected to take at least three years.
Congress approved the site in 2002 as a deep geologic repository, despite opponents’ claims that transporting and entombing 77,000 tons of the nation’s most radioactive spent nuclear fuel from 100 nuclear reactors in 31 states around the country posed irreversible safety and engineering risks.
Eight years later, the project was mothballed by the federal Energy Department after President Barack Obama was elected and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., became Senate majority leader. Congress withdrew funding and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suspended licensing work.
A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled last year the NRC must complete the process and either approve or reject the Energy Department repository licensing application.
Estimates vary, but the amount of money spent drilling a massive U-shaped test tunnel and studying the geology and suitability of the site since the site was identified in 1982 has been put in the tens of billions of dollars.
Authorities say some $9.5 billion of that funding came from a fee that electric customers paid for 31 years to local utilities to fund construction of a federal nuclear waste site. Officials say that fund now amounts to about $37 billion.
Opposition to the repository was once nearly universal among Nevada state elected officials.