Top Nuclear Regulator Says Agency Is Ready For Yucca Hearings

The nation's top nuclear regulator said Thursday he could not say whether planned hearings on federal plans for a national nuclear waste dump in Nevada could be thrown off schedule by congressional funding cuts.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Dale Klein said his agency will be ready to begin reviewing plans for the Yucca Mountain project before or after June 30, the Energy Department's target date for submitting an application to build and operate the repository.

"With this latest breaking news of the budgets we will have to look at how we prioritize our activities," Klein said.

Congress allocated just under $386.5 million this week for the Yucca Mountain project in fiscal 2008, $108 million less than President Bush sought.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is funded separately from the Energy Department, which is developing the Yucca project.

Klein met Thursday with county, state and federal officials in Nevada, and declared a $4 million courtroom-style facility ready to accommodate what officials say could be up to four years of technical hearings once the Energy Department submits an application.

He said the NRC budget of about $350 million contains funds for Yucca Mountain hearings through 2008, and said timing and the technical quality of an application will drive the evaluation of the application.

He said he could not predict when an application might arrive.

Energy Department spokeswoman Angela Hill in Washington, D.C., issued a statement Wednesday declaring the department "moving forward to submit a credible and defensible license application ...
by June 30."

The statement calls Yucca Mountain "critical to the nation's current and future energy and national security needs," and calls full funding of President Bush's $494.5 million request "critical to advancing the opening of the nation's first geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel."

The department missed a similar self-imposed license deadline in
December 2004, after Congress in 2002 picked the site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Plans have been slowed since then by budget cuts, quality assurance questions, opposition from Nevada lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, court fights and a judicial order for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to revise project radiation safety standards.

Edward F. "Ward" Sproat, the Energy Department official in charge of the Yucca project, has projected 2017 as the earliest the dump could open, with a price tag now topping $77 billion.

The repository has been designed to entomb at least 77,000 tons of the nation's most radioactive waste in tunnels 1,000 feet below ground.

However the Energy Department recently proposed doubling the size to almost 150,000 tons, citing ongoing production of waste at nuclear power plants around the country.

Opponents have raised concerns about the safety of transporting radioactive waste to Nevada from commercial power plants and military and research sites in 39 states.