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Feds file request for suspension of Yucca Mountain license

Updated Monday, Feb. 1, 2010 | 3:04 p.m.

Yucca Mountain

The U.S. Energy Department plans to store spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, an extinct volcano about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

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WASHINGTON -- The Energy Department today filed a request to suspend Yucca Mountain's license application and announced plans to withdraw the license completely within a month -- a critical, crushing step to end the nuclear waste dump in Nevada.

The Obama administration's new budget for 2011 out today promises to zero out funds and withdraw the license, but it had been unclear whether the president would begin taking steps to pull back the license as he promised while campaigning in Nevada.

However, Energy Secretary Steven Chu confirmed today he will be withdrawing the license "with prejudice" -- a crucial legal term that, if approved, would mean the application could not be reconsidered at a future date for a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. The Energy Department filed the suspension of the license application today.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had been in constant talks with the Obama administration to end the project.

"This is great news," said Bruce Breslow, the executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, which has been fighting the dump for 25 years. Perhaps even more than cutting the funds, withdrawing the license delivers the closest action yet to a fatal blow.

Those who oppose the waste dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas have worried that unless the application to license Yucca Mountain that is now pending for review at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is withdrawn, a more friendly administration could revive the nuclear waste project.

That license review is a lengthy four-year process that could finish by 2012 -- a presidential election year.

Breslow was guardedly optimistic: "We had champagne on ice for 25 years, but we won't pop the cork until we see the terms and conditions of the withdrawal of the Yucca Mountain license application."

President Barack Obama had campaigned for the presidency in Nevada on the promise that he would withdraw the license.

But the administration had been hesitant to pull the license last year, even as it slashed Yucca's budget. The federal government faces mounting liability from the power companies, which have been successfully suing the government for failing to open Yucca Mountain and take the nuclear waste off their hands.

The steps the Obama administration has taken over the past several days are the most significant to date in ending the Yucca Mountain project.

Obama plans to zero out funding and shift the office that handled Yucca Mountain into the Energy Department's existing nuclear office.

Plus, the administration has begun the process of seeking a viable Plan B. On Friday, the administration established a commission headed by Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft to study alternatives.

The commission is one way to assure the nuclear industry that the administration will make good on its promise to take the waste. The administration also announced it would be beefing up new federal loan guarantees sought by the nuclear industry to build new power plants Obama touted in his State of the Union speech last week.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's main lobby, held out hope today that Yucca Mountain could remain on the back burner as a possible nuclear waste repository for the future.

“The industry does not support the termination of this program but believes that, if it is going to happen, it should occur in an orderly manner to permit the licensing process to be restarted if ever warranted,” CEO Marvin Fertel said. The lobby will be closely monitoring the withdrawal language and would not say today if it would appeal.

Some skeptics may argue that the Yucca Mountain site is not truly dead because it remains in the 1987 law as the proposed location for the nation's nuclear waste and Congress is unlikely to have the votes now to reverse that law.

However, by pulling the license, the administration sets the project down a nearly irreversible course. Once a project is withdrawn with prejudice it cannot be resubmitted without starting from scratch -- a monumental task.

Congress would likely revisit the 1987 law that established Yucca Mountain as the site as the nation's dump as it considers the recommendations of the new commission that is reviewing options for nuclear waste.

"The president’s budget axes all remaining funding for Yucca Mountain and DOE has said it will pull the plug on efforts to license the dump, making it all but impossible for this threat to one day return from the grave,” said Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley.

"There will be nothing left of Yucca Mountain when we get done but a bleached pile of bones.”

Breslow said the state would be looking to the Energy Department to begin to restore the desert site where it has been working and drilling for years, a remediation required under existing law if the government declines to use Yucca Mountain. "We will want to ensure that DOE follows up on site restoration and reclamation and preserve all important documents to protect our legal position in the future."

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