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Nuclear Waste agency seeks to cut off feds’ water at Yucca Mountain

by Geoff Dornan, Appeal Capitol Bureau

Nevada’s Nuclear Waste Project Office wants to cut off the federal government’s water at Yucca Mountain.

But a lawyer for the federal Department of Energy argued Thursday the state engineer is obligated to issue water permits because the application meets state requirements.

It’s the second time around for the water permits battle, part of Nevada’s ongoing struggle to block construction of the Yucca Mountain nuclear dump 75 miles north of Las Vegas. The permanent water permits were denied by former state Engineer Mike Turnipseed on grounds the Legislature had determined Yucca Mountain wasn’t in the public interest and storing nuclear waste there would violate state law. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, saying Nevada can’t deny the water permits on those grounds.

Federal energy and state officials presented their arguments before State Engineer Hugh Ricci again this week. The federal government needs water or it will be unable to operate the Yucca Mountain high level nuclear waste dump.

The government wants permits to draw 430 acre feet of water a year from Fortymile Canyon-Jackass Flat groundwater basin in Nye County.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Marta Adams said those applications “go directly to the public interest in Nevada.”

“We have ample evidence in the record to show the socioeconomic interests of the state will be jeopardized if this project is allowed to go ahead,” she told engineer Ricci and hearing officer Susan Joseph-Taylor. “It’s the Legislature’s view that this project, rather than being normal industrial use, is unique and detrimental to the public interest.”

She said using the water at the underground nuclear waste storage facility will actually contaminate it with radioactive material.

“But the application does not consider the presence of radionuclides at all,” she said.

Adams told the hearing panel contamination of the water supply north of Las Vegas would cause the state irreparable damage.

Kolvet said the Nuclear Projects Office was making the same argument that was tossed out by the federal appeals court.

“They do not address the use of the water,” he said. “They address the potential use of the facility to store nuclear waste.”

He said if there’s water available, taking it doesn’t damage other water rights holders in the system and it’s for a “beneficial use,” the permits should be granted under Nevada law. He said the Department of Energy applications meet those criteria.

Kolvet said he doesn’t even think the state should be talking about discharge.

“You don’t need to even seek a groundwater discharge permit because you don’t intend to discharge,” he said. “If there is a discharge, then there can be enforcement.”

Adams said that would be too late.

Ricci declined to estimate how long it will be before he can announce a decision in the case.

In the meantime, hearings are expected later this year in the Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on the separate effort by Nevada to block federal efforts to turn Yucca Mountain into a repository for more than 78,000 tons of radioactive waste.