LAS VEGAS — Findings released Thursday by analysts in the federal agency with the power to give the go-ahead for a proposed national nuclear waste dump in Nevada appear to provide wiggle room for adopting rules to open the repository, if decision-makers want to go forward.
“Conditions (to open the repository) could be included,” Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff said, “if there is a commission decision to authorize construction.”
But the federal Department of Energy still needs to acquire crucial land and water rights, it said.
Opponents and proponents of the Yucca Mountain project each found support for their positions in the release of the final two volumes of a five-volume report by commission staff.
Both acknowledged it will be up to Congress to pay for a licensing process and secure land and water rights before construction could resume on a site to entomb the nation’s most radioactive waste in a desert area 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman Tom Kauffman saw in the report an endorsement by “independent experts” of Energy Department conclusions that the proposed repository would be capable of safely isolating used nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste for 1 million years.
Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, and Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat, however, saw in the report solid support for their argument that the long-studied Yucca Mountain repository is a dangerous idea that should remain mothballed.
“I will fight to stop that from ever happening,” Heller vowed.
Reid declared: “NRC staff does not recommend authorizing construction of Yucca Mountain. This project will never see the light of day and everyone should accept that and move on.”
A third Nuclear Regulatory Commission volume, released in December, also pointed to the need for the Energy Department to acquire water and land rights for the site before it can get approval from the commission to entomb 77,000 tons of spent nuclear reactor fuel and research waste beneath an ancient volcanic ridge.
U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat who studied, wrote and taught about nuclear issues as a college professor before she was elected to public office, branded the Yucca Mountain project a “boondoggle of an idea.”
“The NRC process has revealed substantive flaws in the DOE application,” Titus said. “Efforts to restart the failed Yucca Mountain project are a waste of time and resources.”
The project is getting a new look after a federal appeals court ruled in 2013 that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has to approve or deny a Yucca Mountain project license.
The court ruling came in a lawsuit by the states of Washington and South Carolina, plus Aiken County, South Carolina, the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. They argued the federal government was breaking a promise to build a place to take their nuclear waste.
The Yucca Mountain site was approved by Congress as a nuclear dump in 2002.
But with Reid as Senate majority leader, Congress cut off funding. And with Barack Obama as president, the Energy Department mothballed the project and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission halted licensing proceedings.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has said he remains opposed to the Yucca Mountain project.
Bob Halstead, head of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects and the top state official fighting the Yucca Mountain project, said Thursday that he believes that even with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports in hand, the Energy Department still has to complete a supplement to a 2008 environmental impact report before licensing hearings can begin.
Officials have said a full slate of licensing hearings could take at least three years.