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Nevada's Clout Evident in Waste Site Battle

When Congress chose Yucca Mountain, the state was a backwater. Times have changed.

February 13, 2005|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — The federal government's campaign to put a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is in trouble, having encountered political and legal setbacks during the last year that have raised questions about when and even if the project will go forward.

The state has stunned federal officials with its tenacity, legal skill and evolving political acumen, scoring key victories in federal court and in Congress that have repeatedly stalled the project 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

When Congress selected Nevada in the 1980s as the proposed dump site for 70,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste, the state lacked the political clout and economic power to stop the effort -- one of the most scientifically complex and costly engineering projects in history.

But what Congress could not have foreseen was the huge economic, demographic and political changes that would sweep over Nevada and particularly Las Vegas, now the nation's fastest growing city and an economic juggernaut in the Southwest. The changes have made the state a more effective and powerful opponent than anybody anticipated.

Opposition has come from every level of Nevada government: Local utility managers turned off the federal project's water supply. Gov. Kenny Guinn issued a veto of the project. Atty. Gen. Brian Sandoval has tied up the project in the courts. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman threatened to arrest anybody carrying out the plan on his turf.

But the most prominent symbol of the state's growing power is Sen. Harry Reid, selected late last year as Senate minority leader and an ardent opponent of the dump. Reid has impressed even his critics with political maneuvers that have eviscerated the Energy Department's budget for Yucca Mountain.

"The Department of Energy has no credibility here in the state of Nevada," Reid said in a recent interview.

In late November, Reid engineered the appointment of Greg Jaczko to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is in charge of licensing the nuclear dump. To broker the deal on Jaczko, a physicist on Reid's staff, the senator held up a number of Bush administration nominations.

"We have thrown up everything humanly possible to block Yucca Mountain, but Harry Reid is going to be the difference now," said Billy Vassiliadis, a top political operative in Nevada who has produced the advertising for the state's tourism and gaming industry.

Last year, the state won its biggest legal victory when a federal appeals court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for radiation emissions from the dump violated federal law. Now, instead of ensuring public safety for 10,000 years, peak radiation emissions must be safe over the life of the dump, potentially 1 million years.

Whether such health standards can be met is unknown. EPA officials say they will propose a new standard this year, though outside experts say it could take years to finalize a rule. Until then, the Energy Department has no hope of getting a license for the dump.

As a result, Energy officials say the project to safely bury nuclear waste from power plants and bomb production will be delayed two more years beyond the projected June 2010 startup. Even before the latest setback, the effort was running 12 years behind its original schedule.

The goal is to use the geology of the mountain and highly engineered containers to safely isolate radioactive waste, now stored at 131 sites across the country.

So, far, the project has cost $8 billion and could end up costing an estimated $100 billion, rivaling the International Space Station's price tag.

The program suffered another setback Friday when its director, Margaret Chu, resigned, citing "personal circumstances." The resignation came less than two weeks after Samuel Bodman was confirmed as Energy secretary and assured Congress he was "focused" on moving Yucca Mountain along faster, something Chu was not able to accomplish.

"Without a miracle of some sort, it is all over," said Bob Loux, executive director of the Nevada Office for Nuclear Projects, the state's lead agency that deals with Yucca Mountain. Other state officials echo that conclusion.

Even Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M..), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Energy Department's budget, acknowledges political problems.

"It is very hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

In a recent book, Domenici argued for an aggressive new era of nuclear power, calling it critical for the nation's economic future as natural gas prices rise and concerns grow about pollution from coal-fired plants. But without a solution to the nuclear waste problem, he said, utilities are unlikely to build new nuclear plants.

The political problems of the dump are highlighted by the Energy Department's fiscal 2006 budget released this month, which includes only $650 million for the project. That is half of earlier funding projections for the year. Nonetheless, Energy officials are publicly upbeat.

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