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July 31, 2014

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Yucca Mountain status? Hearing delves into dumpsite issues, takes pulse of Nevadans

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Yucca Mountain is located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Major progress is expected in the coming year toward resolving the outstanding questions and legal challenges surrounding Yucca Mountain’s potential as a repository for the country’s high-level nuclear waste, members of the state Legislature were told during an interim committee hearing Friday.

During a four-hour hearing, a range of experts and state officials laid out the road map for decisions in the upcoming year that will seriously affect Yucca Mountain’s future.

The hearing also laid bare the confusion and tension that still surround the project three decades and $15 billion after it was first considered, with a contingent of rural county officials and residents urging the state to reverse course and consider the potential economic impact the repository will have. Fully developing the Yucca Mountain site is projected to cost in excess of $100 billion.

Testifying before the Committee on High-Level Radioactive Waste on Friday, former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan said there’s “not a pot of gold at the end of the nuclear rainbow.”

Bryan, chairman of the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects, said the state’s opposition is about safety of citizens, not money, warning that there are serious concerns that the radioactivity would leak into the water table and there’s the possibility of earthquakes hitting the proposed burial tunnels.

Another major concern raised during the hearing is how the nuclear waste would be transported to the proposed repository. Current plans have as many as three trains and two trucks bearing radioactive waste per week traveling through Clark County to reach the site.

But Nye County Commission Chairman Dan Schinhofen urged the state to drop its opposition, letting the licensing process play out and “the science be heard.” If storing the waste at Yucca Mountain is unsafe, Schinhofen said the science will prove it out and the license will be rejected.

“What kept coming out was fear and loathing in Las Vegas. We kept hearing all the reasons why it couldn’t happen,” he said. “I am very concerned that it’s safe. But we won’t know until we get the safety evaluation reports out and we have a licensing (process) as the law sets forward to do."

Last year, the Nuclear Resources Commission was ordered by a panel of judges from the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to restart the licensing application process that could ultimately approve Yucca Mountain’s designation.

The first phase of that process is now underway as the NRC begins working to develop a Safety Evaluation Report for the project and compiling a public database of millions of relevant documents pertaining to the licensing hearing.

Those documents are expected to be compiled by the end of the year, but it’s unclear whether the agency will have the funding to move on to the second stage of the licensing process, which would involve a trial-type hearing where all of the evidence for and against the project would be presented.

The NRC currently has only about $13 million to complete the licensing process, an amount Bob Halstead, executive director of the state Agency for Nuclear Projects, estimates will barely cover the first phase. With no additional federal money currently budgeted to the agency, it’s possible the licensing process could shut down before going to a hearing, effectively freezing any progress toward turning Yucca Mountain into a repository.

Sun reporter Cy Ryan contributed to this report.

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