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Obama to zero out Yucca Mountain funding, pull license

Updated Monday, Feb. 1, 2010 | 9:22 a.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 - President Barack Obama plans to zero out funding for Yucca Mountain and "take steps" to withdraw the project's pending license application, according to a preview of the 2011 budget that will be announced Monday.

The president's intention to pull the license application -- a promise he made while campaigning in Nevada -- would be one of the most critical moves yet in stopping the proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been in ongoing talks with Obama over the dump, called the development "great news."

"President Obama is keeping his word to Nevada and I thank him for working with me as we try to find a safer solution for dealing with the nation's nuclear waste," Reid said Sunday.

Reid's office released information from Obama's coming budget that showed: "The Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management will be merged into the Office of Nuclear Energy. As part of the merger, funding for the proposed Yucca Mountain project will be eliminated and the Department will take steps to withdraw the license application in the near future. This reflects the Administration's commitment to pursuing a responsible, long-term strategy through the appointment of a high-level Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future.“

"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," said Bruce Breslow, the executive director of the state's Agency for Nuclear Projects, which has been fighting the dump.

Breslow and project opponents will be looking to see that the application is drawn "with prejudice" -- meaning the site is not suitable and cannot be reconsidered in the future.

He said he will also be looking to the Energy Department to begin to restore the desert site where it has been working and drilling for years. "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."

Even as Reid -- and, in the past year, Obama -- have severely slashed the Yucca Mountain budget, opponents have worried that unless the license for the project that is now pending for review at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is withdrawn, a more friendly administration could revive the dump project.

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

However, under existing law, the administration and its Energy Department could simply withdraw the license application -- essentially halting the project from advancing, which would be a significant blow.

The administration had been hesitant to pull the license because it could face 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.

On Friday, the administration took a critical step toward assuring the nuclear industry it was seeking a viable Plan B by establishing a commission headed by Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft to study alternatives. 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.

Yucca Mountain's opponents may still hold skepticism that the project is truly dead. The site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas remains in the 1987 law as the proposed location for the nation's nuclear waste, and opponents argue that until the site is declared unsuitable by the administration or the law is changed by Congress, Nevada's desert could remain on the back burner as the waste site.

Also, budget watchers will be looking to see how much funding the Obama allocation allocates to the new merged department to ensure only minimal amounts for close out work at Yucca are allowed.

Congress is unlikely to attempt any change to the existing law, as Reid would not likely have the votes to revisit the difficult issue that had been decided more than 20 years ago.

Still, those who have been fighting the dump for decades will likely see the Obama administration's decision to zero out funding and take steps to withdraw the application in the future as among the most clear signs yet the dump project is almost dead.

Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley said the Energy Department confirmed to her the budget language coming Monday from the White House.

"This budget is a bulldozer that will help Nevada flatten Yucca Mountain into a permanent pile of rubble," Berkley said.

"Money talks and the president's budget shouts 'no more spending' on efforts to dump nuclear waste in Nevada," she said. "We are closer than ever to winning the war on Yucca Mountain and the battle now is to pass this funding cut, so I'll be on the front lines leading the charge in the House."

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