Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Filing of application gives state something to shoot at

After 25 years of trying to stop it in its tracks, Nevada officials should celebrate the U.S. Department of Energy's Tuesday filing of a license application for the long-delayed nuclear waste repository in Southern Nevada.

For years, the state has been shooting at a moving target in its opposition to the plan to store tons of waste from nuclear power plants, none of which are in Nevada, under Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Now, however, the burden is on the DOE to prove that it has done all of its homework and that the proposed plan will provide a safe and effective place to store the waste. That waste has been piling up around the country while millions have been spent trying to force the repository on a state that doesn't want it.

It is critical to remember that, despite numerous promises by federal officials, including President George W. Bush, to let the science determine whether Yucca Mountain is an appropriate location for the dump, the decision to concentrate on the Nevada site was wholly political.

The process began with three possible sites. The decision to stop studying sites in New Mexico and Louisiana ostensibly was based on science but, in fact, was made under intense political pressure, primarily from the then-chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Sen. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana. Johnston's effort to force the DOE to focus on the Nevada site became known as the "Screw Nevada" bill.

Since then, Nevada officials have raised countless questions about the process. Contractors have been caught massaging the data to fit the legal requirements for the license application, and, when the data didn't fit, officials have sought to change the requirements so they do fit.

On Wednesday, with the application for a license finally filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Agency and facing a review that could last three years, the state was able to pinpoint further objections. Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto filed the first challenge, arguing that the application lacks an Environmental Protection Agency radiation standard (a court rejected a previous attempt to use a lower standard), is missing important information about transportation and canister design and has other serious flaws.

So the fight goes on.

Most of this could have been avoided. Congress could have stayed out of the fray and allowed the science to go forward as originally envisioned. More important, Congress could have questioned the original premise of storing the nuclear waste underground and out of sight while the rest of the world was going in a different direction -- mostly toward reprocessing of spent fuel. (Elsewhere on this page, John Scire, adjunct professor of political science at the University of Nevada, offers one alternative to the repository.)

Instead, the federal government -- pressed by the nuclear power industry -- has wasted 20 years and millions of dollars on a project that Nevada officials are determined to keep out of their state.

On Tuesday, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said that the licensing application can "stand up to any challenge anywhere." We shall see.

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