LAS VEGAS — President Bush quietly signed a bill Tuesday in Washington formally adopting Yucca Mountain as the nation's repository for used nuclear reactor fuel, pushing the 20-year debate on its development into the scientific and legal arenas.
The Department of Energy is preparing its technical application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approval to construct the $58-billion project, which it has yet to finish designing. Nevada's science advisors will use the NRC hearings to argue that the project is technically flawed and unsafe.
Attorneys for Nevada, meanwhile, will argue later this year in federal court that the project is illegal, with hopes of killing it even before the NRC gets the Yucca Mountain application.
The state's first two lawsuits are expected to be resolved in a Washington federal appeals court next year. The first one attacks the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's decision that Yucca Mountain be designed for a safety span of 10,000 years, versus 1 million years as advised by the National Academy of Sciences. The lawsuit also challenges EPA standards regulating the amount of radiation that would be allowed to leak from Yucca Mountain.
The next lawsuit challenges the government's decision to rely on engineered solutions to keep radiation within Yucca Mountain even though Congress in 1982 mandated that a geologically safe site be selected.
Government scientists have concluded that Yucca Mountain, which consists of hardened volcanic ash, is not sufficiently solid to contain radiation, and opponents say it is rife with water-seeping fractures that will carry radiation into the desert aquifer.
"We're just going after the blatant stuff," said Joseph Egan, the state's lead attorney, "and we hope judges will look at it and raise their eyebrows and get indignant. We're in a [court] circuit with a history of demanding that federal agencies follow the law, whether it is politically popular or not."
Gov. Kenny Guinn remained upbeat Tuesday. "I have always believed that our best chance in defeating Yucca Mountain is in the federal courts," he said.
Nevadans, however, seem increasingly resigned that a nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain seems inevitable. A telephone survey this month for the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that 49% of the 625 respondents supported lawsuits to derail Yucca Mountain. However, 43% now want the state to negotiate benefits in exchange for taking 77,000 tons of nuclear waste, compared with 23% in 1990.
State officials dismissed the results of the poll as "post-vote blues" after the House in May and the Senate this month gave the Bush administration the go-ahead to pursue Yucca Mountain over Guinn's objections.
The White House on Tuesday took steps to avoid drawing attention to the bill signing, just as it sought to play down the signing several months ago of the legislation limiting campaign contributions. Bush signed the bill with neither reporters nor news photographers present, and the signing was not placed on his public schedule.
After the signing, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the project would "ensure our nation has a safe and secure underground facility that will store nuclear waste in a manner that protects our environment and our citizens."
The material--rods of uranium pellets that are no longer efficient for nuclear reactors but that will remain highly radioactive for tens of thousands of years--is stored at 131 power plants and government sites in 39 states.
Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is not yet free of political wrangling. As he has in past years, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority whip and a steadfast Yucca Mountain opponent, is trimming funds for the project's annual operating budget through his chairmanship of an appropriations subcommittee.
Last year, the administration's request for $445 million in Yucca Mountain funding was cut 38% by the appropriations subcommittee.
On Monday, Bush's request for $525 million for Yucca development was slashed 36%, to $336 million, by the subcommittee. The full Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the issue today.
Spokeswoman Tessa Hafen said Reid cut as much as he could without offending other committee members who support Yucca Mountain and jeopardizing the entire appropriations bill, which has "other worthwhile projects."
The cutbacks have frustrated Energy Department officials, who won't make a 90-day deadline to get their application to the NRC. The application won't be ready until December 2004, said Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis.
"The work we've been able to do reflects the budget we're given to support the work," Davis said. "At every turn, it's been cut in the Senate, and we're not getting the money we think is necessary to get our work done."
The NRC expects to take three years to study the project. The Department of Energy optimistically hopes to open the facility in 2010.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.