LAS VEGAS (AP) - A panel of Nuclear Regulatory Commission judges began meeting Tuesday to decide who may take part in hearings on a federal plan to build a long-delayed national radioactive waste dump in Nevada.
Representatives of several groups were making their cases for participating when the NRC begins a review of the Energy Department's application to build and operate the Yucca Mountain repository, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The review could take up to four years.
"They're trying to show standing and that they have issues that should be considered by the judges," NRC spokesman David McIntyre said.
Applicants include the states of Nevada and California, eight counties in the two states, three Indian groups, the Nuclear Energy Institute lobbying group and a hot springs resort in the small town of Caliente, Nevada.
Sierra Club organizer Jane Feldman led a group of about 10 protesters outside the building, holding signs reading "Nevada is Not a Wasteland" and calling for the federal government to drop its decades-long plan to build the Yucca Mountain project.
Feldman noted the Obama administration's reversal of Bush administration support for burying the nation's high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.
Obama's proposed budget calls for cutting funding for the Yucca Mountain project, except for money needed to respond to questions during the Nuclear Regulatory Commission application process. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said the administration plans to seek other options for dealing with nuclear waste.
Until then, the NRC is compelled to continue the licensing process as required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act passed by Congress in 1982 and amended several times since.
"Even activists are assuming that Yucca Mountain is dead," said Feldman, a veteran of two decades of protests against burying spent nuclear fuel in a remote corner of the vast Nevada Test Site. "But we'll be here through the whole entire process, until the nation comes up with a better solution."
Daylong hearings were expected to continue through Thursday before three-member panels of administrative judges who will decide which groups will be allowed to "intervene" and which of some 319 "contentions" or challenges will be heard in courtroom-styl
hearings. Most hearings are expected to be held in Las Vegas. McIntyre said dates have not been set.
The repository was supposed to open in 1998, but the project has been beset by delays, legal challenges and funding shortfalls. Officials now say the earliest the site could begin accepting waste would be 2020.
The Energy Department submitted its 8,600-page license application last June. It calls for entombing more than 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel in tunnels some 1,000 feet below the surface of the ancient volcanic ridge.
The department has put a price tag on the project at more than $90 billion over 100 years.