The federal Energy Department is dusting off a backup plan to ship radioactive waste by truck through rural Nevada in the first years of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
"It's possible that we won't have a rail line when we are ready to ship, and so we have to have a contingency," Energy Department and Yucca Mountain spokesman Allen Benson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal for a Tuesday report.
"You have to be prepared, and that's what this is," he said.
Nuclear waste casks would be placed on rail cars at nuclear reactors in 39 states and shipped to a Nevada transfer station, possibly at Caliente, according to an internal Energy Department analysis performed this month.
The casks would be rolled onto specially designed tractor-trailers and hauled across the state to the repository, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
An Energy Department document obtained this week by the Review-Journal indicates a probable 330-mile truck route north and west to Tonopah along federal and state roads, and then south on U.S. Highway 95 to Yucca Mountain.
The contingency assumes a railroad line would be up and running by 2016, but nuclear waste would be shipped to the repository by truck for the first six years after the Energy Department opens the dump in 2010.
The Energy Department is expected soon to formalize a 319-mile corridor from Caliente to the repository as its preferred rail route.
A seven-page analysis completed by Energy Department's Office of National Transportation for the Yucca Mountain Project did not say how many truck shipments would be made through Nevada over the six-year period.
Robert Halstead, a consultant for Nevada's state Agency for Nuclear Projects, said the state was examining the department's study.
He estimated truck shipments through rural Nevada could increase from about 600 the first year to 2,200 a year in the fourth, fifth and sixth years.
Benson would not comment on the estimate, saying the Energy Department was developing its numbers.
Benson said the existence of a backup plan did not mean the Energy Department was conceding it cannot have a railroad built by 2010.
However, the department estimates it could take almost four years to build a Nevada rail line. Officials say they can't break ground until they get construction authorization from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in 2007 or 2008 at the earliest.
Halstead said state officials will demand the Energy Department perform more detailed environmental studies or would consider another Nevada lawsuit against the Yucca Mountain program.
The Energy Department plans by the end of the year to submit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission an application to open the repository by 2010. Congress has approved the plan to entomb at Yucca Mountain 77,000 tons of the nation's most radioactive waste.
The Energy Department studied the truck-cask-on-railcar concept years ago, but concluded it was not practical over an entire 24-year shipping campaign.