U.S. seeks license for nuclear waste dump in Nevada

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. Energy Department has applied for a license to operate a long-delayed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman announced on Tuesday.

Bodman said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will take about three years to review and decide whether to approve the license request for the Yucca Mountain storage facility, which was supposed to have opened in 1998. The earliest Yucca Mountain could open is 2020, the department said.

The Yucca Mountain storage site, about 90 miles from Las Vegas, has endured years of bureaucratic delays and scientific foul-ups. The government needs a license from the NRC to operate the fuel dump when it is ready.

“Submittal of the Yucca Mountain license application will further encourage the expansion of nuclear power in the United States, which is absolutely critical to our energy security, environmental goals, and national security,” said Bodman.

“We are confident that the NRC’s rigorous review process will confirm that the Yucca Mountain repository will provide for the safe disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste and will be protective of human health and the environment now and into the future,” he added.

The department’s license application runs 8,600 pages. “We are ready to get to work on this challenging review,” said NRC Chairman Dale Klein.

Klein said his agency’s review will involve more than 100 NRC staff and contractor employees. To meet the three-year deadline, he said Congress will to have to provide the NRC with an extra $40 million in the 2009 budget year to cover the cost of reviewing the license request.

However, many lawmakers in Congress are opposed to Yucca Mountain, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is from Nevada. Lawmakers could block money for the site. Reid told reporters on Tuesday that the storage project was “close to being dead.”

The next U.S. president would have a big say in what happens with Yucca Mountain. Republican presidential frontrunner Sen. John McCain backs the project. Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, is against Yucca Mountain and could deny funding for it if elected.

“If the strategy is to slow the decision down (on the license), if you don’t provide adequate funds, then that’s likely to be the result,” Klein said at the Reuters Global Energy Summit. “We’ll have to be funded accordingly.”

He also said “it’s certainly too early to tell” if Yucca Mountain could be opened by 2020 as the Energy Department expects.

Yucca Mountain is designed to store millions of pounds of radioactive waste from 104 U.S. nuclear power reactors underground, along with tons of leftovers from the country’s nuclear weapons program.

Currently, spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste are stored at 121 temporary locations in 39 states across the country.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main lobby group, welcomed the department’s license request. However, the group also called for interim storage of the waste until the permanent Yucca storage site is ready or the U.S. develops a program to reprocess spent fuel.

“The filing of this license application continues down a path to properly meet our obligation to future generations to safely and reliably manage the byproduct of this highly efficient form of electricity production,” said NEI president Frank Bowman.

“America’s current fleet of 104 nuclear reactors produces about 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel annually and with dozens of reactors planned for the future, the nuclear industry must have a clear pathway to transfer spent fuel to the government to responsibly manage its disposal,” said James Jones with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Reporting by Tom Doggett; editing by Matthew Lewis