Yucca Mountain Isn't Dead Yet

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A Nevada panel fighting a proposed Yucca Mountain dump for nuclear waste was told Wednesday that project backers face big obstacles but are still seeking approval of the dump and of rail shipping routes - including one through downtown Reno and Sparks.

The warning to the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects prompted its chairman, Richard Bryan, a former state governor and U.S. senator, to say, "This is no time to sit back and assume everything will unfold ... in our favor."

Bob Halstead, a transportation adviser to the commission, said rail shipments through the Reno-Sparks area would have a huge impact on commercial and residential properties near the route - possibly lowering their combined value by well over $1 billion.

Asked after the commission meeting why Nevada must press its fight against the dump, Halstead said, "We've driven a stake through this vampire's heart three or four times - and each time he stands up and says, 'Yucca Mountain."'

Halstead added that while U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised to block the Department of Energy's Yucca Mountain project, which already has cost at least $9 billion, Nevada remains the No. 1 target because no other states want to take high-level radioactive waste.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Feb. 5 that the DOE will prepare an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license for the dump, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, by June 2008. President Bush has asked Congress for nearly $500 million to allow completion of the application.

Originally scheduled to open in 1998, the dump has been set back repeatedly by lawsuits, money shortfalls and scientific controversies. The DOE's current best-case opening date for the dump, which would hold 77,000 tons of waste, is 2017.

In his remarks to the commission, Halstead said some trains from waste-producing power plants would run on tracks parallel to Interstate 80 in northern Nevada, coming from the east and the west. Trains from the west would run through downtown Reno and Sparks.

The trains would then run south to Yucca Mountain along a route near U.S. 95, which goes through several rural towns including Schurz, Hawthorne, Mina, Tonopah and Goldfield. Halstead said the DOE's estimated cost of upgrading rail routes and laying new track is $1.6 billion - but he termed that "a made-up number."

Also speaking at the commission meeting was Sparks City Manager
Shaun Carey, who said the DOE rejected a request for a hearing on
the rail route. He said the route is of particular concern for his city, since it's home to a major rail operations yard.

Bob Loux, head of the state's Agency for Nuclear Projects, said it looks like the DOE wants to "deliberately keep people in northern Nevada out of the process."

DOE spokesman Allen Benson said a preliminary hearing on rail routes was held at the University of Nevada, Reno in late November, adding, "I don't know much closer we could get to Sparks City Hall." He said additional hearings will be held in northern Nevada in the future.

"We're years away from routes," he added. "We haven't settled on any routes. Our focus is on completing and submitting the licensing application."

Benson also said the federal government has been hauling nuclear waste by truck for half a century with no problems, and "we're quite confident we can continue our safety record."

Benson said waste headed for Yucca Mountain would be in solid form and security guards would accompany the trains, which would run about twice a week over a 24-year period.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)