WASHINGTON - Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said yesterday that he's confident the government's license application to build a nuclear waste dump in Nevada will "stand up to any challenge anywhere."
Bodman spoke during a news conference hours after the Bush administration submitted the formal application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to build the underground storage facility at Yucca Mountain more than 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Nevada officials, who have fought the waste dump for years, vowed to launch hundreds of specific challenges to the proposed design of the facility, arguing that the Energy Department has not proved it will protect public health, safety, and the environment from radiation that can be dangerous for up to a million years.
Responding to the filing, Governor Jim Gibbons reiterated his promise to fight the waste dump, which he said "threatens the life and safety of the people of Nevada."
"As long as I am governor, the state will continue to do everything it can to stop Yucca Mountain from becoming reality," he said in a statement.
Bodman called the application submission "a big day" for moving the stalled project forward and said he's confident the scientific assessments demonstrate that the 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste from the country's nuclear power plants can be stored there safely.
"Issues of health, safety, and security have been paramount during this process. . . . [They] are the driving factors in the decisions we have made," Bodman said.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader and a vocal opponent, said in a statement that he and other Nevada lawmakers "will continue working . . . to kill the dump," which most Nevada residents don't want in their state. In recent years Congress has repeatedly cut Yucca project funding in part because of Reid's strong opposition.
Edward F. Sproat, manager of the Yucca project, confirmed that the department now believes that the waste site many not open until 2020, assuming the NRC grants a license. And that target may not be met if Congress does not provide a steady money stream, he added.
A truck delivered tens of thousands of documents to the NRC's office in Rockville, Md., earlier in the day. The application itself covers 17 volumes and 8,600 pages and is supported by more than 200 other documents and studies.
But a key document is missing.
The application prepared for the NRC still lacks a final public radiation exposure standard that establishes how protective the facility must be from radiation leakage. The Environmental Protect Agency had issued a standard designed to be protective for 10,000 years.
But a federal court said that it was inadequate and that the agency must establish a standard shown to be protective for up to 1 million years, the duration some of the isotopes in the waste will remain dangerous. The EPA has not produced that document.
Bodman said he didn't think that was a problem. The NRC, which has three years to review the application, can accept it later as an amendment but must have it to make its final determination.
The NRC's primary job will be to determine whether the proposed repository's design will protect the public and the environment for up to a million years.
Dale Klein, NRC chairman, promised a review "entirely on technical merits" and said the agency "will perform an independent, rigorous, and thorough examination to determine whether the repository can safely house the nation's high-level waste."
If the application is approved, it will take seven to eight years to build the facility, Sproat said.
President Bush gave the go-ahead for the Yucca waste repository six years ago. It is being designed to hold 77,000 tons of waste, mostly used reactor fuel from nuclear power plants.
About $6 billion has been spent in research and engineering at the Nevada site, including the construction of a tunnel deep into the volcanic rock where the canisters of used reactor fuel are to be placed. The Energy Department estimates the lifetime cost of the facility will be between $70 billion and $80 billion.
Under a 1982 law, the federal government is contractually required to accept the spent fuel from commercial power plants and should have had a central repository available for fuel shipments by 1998.
This year Congress provided $386.5 million for the program, $108 million less than the Bush administration sought as it prepared its construction application.