MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
A truck carrying what was described as a mind-boggling stack of documents arrived at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission early this morning. The paperwork is the long-awaited application for a license to build a nuclear waste dump under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The government has been researching this site for over 20 years. President Bush and Congress approved it in 2002, but the lawsuits and political fights continue. Today's license application took the project a small, hard-fought step forward.
NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: The application fit on one DVD but printed out, it made an impressive bit of paperwork. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman held a press conference; before him on a long table were binder after binder - like a huge encyclopedia.
BLOCK: This application represents the culmination of over 20 years of work by some of the nation's leading scientists, engineers and technical experts.
KESTENBAUM: To actually get the license, the government has to show with computer models and all those documents that the repository won't leak more than a small amount of radioactive material into the groundwater over the ages. How far into the future hasn't been decided, but the Environmental Protection Agency is considering a new rule which would set limits that would apply one million years into the future. Secretary Bodman said the application showed the repository would meet even that tough standard.
BLOCK: We have done our level best. We believe it can be done or we wouldn't be standing here before you here today.
KESTENBAUM: The license will face many challenges. The State of Nevada has doggedly fought the project at every turn and says it will contest the license application on hundreds of points. And of course, Nevada has a powerful voice in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid from Nevada recently helped cut funding for the project.
BLOCK: This is bad from the beginning to the end. This whole process is doomed to failure. There is no chance Yucca Mountain is going to be a place for siting nuclear waste.
KESTENBAUM: Reid favors leaving the waste where it is now, in big metal containers at the nuclear power plants. By law, the U.S. government was required to begin picking up the waste from power plants 10 years ago. It didn't because it didn't have any place to put it. As a result, electrical utilities filed over 60 lawsuits. Jerry Stouck is handling 10 of those; he's an attorney with the firm Greenberg Traurig, and he's happy the license application was finally submitted today.
BLOCK: It's a significant milestone, a very significant milestone on the way towards the opening of the repository. But the licensing process will have to, you know, take place now and that's also a significant undertaking; that's going to take several years.
KESTENBAUM: And every year costs the government more money. At the end of 2007, the U.S. had paid out $290 million to compensate utilities for the expense of storing the waste locally. The government has spent almost $100 million in legal fees alone. While the announcement was a milestone for some, it left Eric Herzik a little bored. He's a political scientist at the University of Nevada and has watched the Yucca saga for over a decade.
P: Well, it's just another step in this seemingly interminable project's path towards being licensed.
KESTENBAUM: Do you think eventually it will be licensed?
BLOCK: That still remains to be seen. I mean, sometimes it seems like it's about to die, then other times it seems like it's going to be fast-tracked. It really - it's hard to predict what's going to happen, whether or not this ultimately will open.
KESTENBAUM: The Department of Energy today said the earliest the nuclear waste repository could open would be 2020.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
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