Nevada officials declare victory after Yucca Mountain ruling
LAS VEGAS – Nevada officials declared victory Friday in their fight to stop the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, saying they don’t think the Energy Department can meet a stricter standard to protect the public against radiation releases.
“The people of Nevada should throw up their arms and cheer at this court ruling,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., referring to a federal court decision requiring the Energy Department to contain radiation for longer than 10,000 years at the Yucca Mountain site.
Friday’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected Nevada’s main arguments against the constitutionality of forcing one state to take all the nation’s nuclear waste.
But justices did uphold arguments that Environmental Protection Agency radiation standards for the site were inadequate and would have to be strengthened.
Berkley said that by tossing out the EPA radiation standard, the court has said “the Bush Administration’s plan for Yucca Mountain will not protect the health and safety of Nevada residents.”
In a statement, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham noted the court dismissed the state’s challenges to the selection of the site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and said the department will work with the EPA and Congress to address the ruling on the radiation standard.
“Our scientific basis for the Yucca Mountain project is sound,” Abraham said. “The project will protect the public health and safety.”
Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said it was unclear whether the ruling would delay plans to begin the process of applying for a license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate the dump. The department had planned to open the repository in 2010.
Joe Egan, a lawyer who argued the state’s case, said the Energy Department will not be able to meet a National Academy of Sciences recommendation that the site be made safe for 350,000 years and will not be able to get a license.
“We think we put a stake through the heart of this project,” Egan said.
Sen. John Kerry’s campaign issued a statement praising the decision and criticizing President Bush for allowing the project to move forward. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and Massachusetts senator voted against the project in 2002.
“The Court’s decision confirms what John Kerry has been saying all along and what everyone in Nevada knows – that the Bush Administration has turned its back on sound science in its rush to build the Yucca Mountain repository,” said Sean Smith, a Kerry spokesman in Nevada.
The Bush campaign referenced exhaustive studies proving Yucca Mountain is “scientifically and technically suitable for development.”
“John Kerry is politicizing this issue in an effort to distract Nevadans from his troubling record on strengthening the economy, lowering health care costs, and protecting our homeland,” said Tracey Schmitt, a Bush campaign spokeswoman.
But Nevada’s congressional leaders hailed the ruling as a “major victory,” and citizens’ groups were elated.
“I love it. It means they have to go back to square one and do all this refiguring,” said Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert, an anti-nuclear group in Nevada.
“Their whole house of cards is balanced against the fact that they only have to comply for 10,000 years,” said Judy Treichel, head of the Nuclear Waste Task Force and a longtime Yucca Mountain opponent. “We said that’s ridiculous because the stuff will probably get out before, but certainly after that time and contaminate Nevada.”
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the ruling was a “significant blow to the Department of Energy and the Yucca Mountain project, and I believe enough to effectively kill the project.”
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., was similarly optimistic, saying the decision gives Nevada a “crucial legal tool to defeat the Yucca Mountain project once and for all.”
Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican whose veto of Yucca Mountain was overridden by Congress in 2002, said he interpreted the court decision to mean there can be no movement toward licensing in the near future.
“You can’t do much more without a license,” he said.
The governor said the Energy Department could go to Congress for a change in the law or to seek an EPA rule change, adding that either would take time.