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Controversy Over Yucca Mountain May Be Ending

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009; A13

More than two decades after Yucca Mountain in Nevada was selected to be the national nuclear waste repository, the controversial proposal may finally be put to rest by the Obama administration.

In keeping with a pledge President Obama made during the campaign, the budget released last week cuts off almost all funding for creating a permanent burial site for a large portion of the nation's radioactive nuclear waste at the site in the Nevada desert. Congress selected the location in 1987 and reaffirmed the choice in 2002. About $7.7 billion has been sunk into the project since its inception.

"Yucca Mountain is not an option, and the budget clearly reflects that," Stephanie Mueller, a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy, said yesterday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), a staunch opponent of the Yucca project, called the Obama action "our most significant victory to date in our battle to protect Nevada from becoming the country's toxic wasteland."

Reid, who during primary season helped extract campaign promises from Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to stop Yucca Mountain, added: "President Obama recognizes that the proposed dump threatens the health and safety of Nevadans and millions of Americans. His commitment to stop this terrible project could not be clearer."

Less clear is what will happen next with the nation's growing stockpile of nuclear waste.

"That's a great question," said Geoffrey H. Fettus, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The budget provides no answers as to what the administration proposes to do with the approximately 57,700 tons of nuclear waste at more than 100 temporary sites around the country, or with the approximately 2,000 tons generated each year by nuclear power plants. The Yucca site was designed specifically to handle spent fuel rods from the nation's 103 nuclear generators.

"The new administration is starting the process of finding a new strategy for nuclear waste," Mueller said.

Keeping the waste at temporary sites is an option in the short term, but experts in the field say it will not serve as a long-term answer for the problem of radioactive waste, which will need to be kept safely stored for at least 1,000 years.

Others have advocated reprocessing much of the spent fuel, as is being done in France, but this too is fraught with problems, according to some experts.

Ultimately, Fettus said, the government will have to find a new site or sites for permanent storage of nuclear waste.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the nuclear industry, favors the creation of a "blue-ribbon commission to assess where we go," spokesman Steve Kerkeres said.

The Bush administration last year submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and hoped to have the repository operating by 2020. The Obama administration is not withdrawing the application because of concerns about lawsuits but, nonetheless, insists the Yucca Mountain project will not go forward.

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