YUCCA MOUNTAIN, Nev. - The federal government applied for a license Tuesday to build a long-planned dump for the nation's radioactive waste in Nevada, but state officials vowed a renewed effort to block it, saying Washington has "lost track of reality."
After a quarter-century of scientific dispute and legal wrangling, the Energy Department officially launched what could be one of the most complex and costly engineering efforts in history. The Yucca Mountain repository, located 16 miles from the California border, would eventually store 70,000 metric tons of waste that has been accumulating since the first reactors went online.
And the amount of waste will grow at an increasing rate in future decades: In the last year, utilities have launched a nuclear power renaissance, announcing plans for 15 new commercial reactors.
The application "will further encourage the expansion of nuclear power in the United States, which is absolutely critical to our energy security, to our environment and to our national security," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Tuesday.
The license application, which is 8,600 pages long, was filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has up to four years to act. If everything goes unfettered, Bodman said, Yucca Mountain could be open for business by 2020 at a cost of about $70 billion.
Although the impetus for a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain may be greater than ever, the legal and political hurdles for the project are vast.
A sharp cut in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's budget has left it short of resources, Chairman Dale E. Klein said. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is years behind schedule in issuing a health standard for radioactive leakage from the dump. A previous standard was ruled illegal by a federal appeals court.
The issues that remain undecided could set off a frenetic pace of legal and regulatory scrambling in the closing days of the Bush administration.
Nevada officials said the administration was rushing forward with an incomplete application out of the belief that it would be more difficult to stop once it was in motion.
"They are just trying to get this on the plate while they still have a pal in the White House," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in an interview. "All they want to do is get it out of their hands and give it to the next administration."
The dump has become one of the biggest geographic disputes in modern U.S. history, pitting Nevada against a nuclear power industry centered in the East. California's two senators, as well as others in the West, have supported Nevada's opposition to the dump.
Edward "Ward" Sproat, director of the Energy Department's office of civilian radioactive waste, disputed the idea of a geographic divide, saying the dump would relieve 39 states of stored nuclear waste.
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"I don't see it as an East versus West issue," Sproat said. "I see it as a national issue."
The design of the dump will provide for safe storage of the waste and represents 20 years of work by the nation's leading scientists, engineers and technical experts, including eight of the national laboratories and the U.S. Geological Survey, Bodman said.
The Energy Department has long argued against critics who want to leave the waste in place until technology improves. It would be irresponsible to not deal with the problem, the department has said.
The delays in building the dump have complicated the problem. Sproat said the Energy Department would have to ask Congress to expand the capacity of the Yucca Mountain site because all of its 70,000 metric tons of capacity will be reached in the next 24 months.
The nation has been trying to resolve the issue since the late 1970s. In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. In his first term, President Bush, with congressional approval, selected Yucca Mountain as the designated site for what is mostly spent fuel from commercial reactors but also military nuclear waste.
Since then, Nevada has waged an effective legal, political and technical fight against it, drawing on the state's growing fiscal and political clout.
"The whole legal and regulatory process is corrupt," said Marta Adams, senior deputy attorney general in Nevada. "It would be very hard for Nevada to get a fair shake."
Only last year, Nevada blocked a federal effort to get access to 8 million gallons of state water to drill test holes at the site.
Nevada officials have a carefully laid out a plan to stop the project, said Robert Loux, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects. He said the state would immediately file to have the Energy Department's application thrown out, and if that fails, lodge more than 600 separate disputes or "contentions."
The notion that the dump would be safe is implausible, said Victor Galinsky, a former NRC commissioner and now a Nevada consultant.
The plan hinges on the use of titanium and palladium drip shields to protect waste canisters buried underground from water flowing through Yucca Mountain's porous rock. The Energy Department plans to install about 11,000 drip shields, each weighing five tons, using robots 100 to 300 years in the future when the repository would be sealed.
"It is pie in the sky," Galinsky said. "These people have lost track of reality."
© 2008 The Los Angeles Times