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DOE Signals End to Yucca Mountain By Pulling NRC Application

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Plans for a Southern Nevada national nuclear waste repository are all but kaput. The U.S. Energy Dept. said Feb. 1 it will withdraw its Nuclear Regulatory Commission application within 30 days. The move comes after DOE spent nearly three decades and $38 billion on waste repository tests and studies at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The agency planned to store up to 77,000 tons of radioactive waste there from 80 sites in 35 states. Spent utility fuel and high-level defense waste would be placed in specially engineered containers housed inside a network of tunnels built deep within Yucca Mountain. Government estimates put the construction price-tag at about $100-billion.

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The license withdrawal coincides with President Obama's campaign pledge to find an alternate storage site. The 2011 Presidential budget eliminates Yucca project funding; yet it seeks to triple the size of the DOE’s loan guarantee program to $54 billion, possibly leading to the construction of seven to 10 new nuclear reactors. It still leaves the waste problem unresolved; temporary storage could run between $10 billion and $26 billion if a permanent repository isn't opened within the next century, reports a Government Accounting Office study in December. By 2055, the amount of waste is expected to increase to 153,000 tons.

“The staff and legal department have been looking at how to handle an application withdrawal,” says NRC spokesman Scott Burnell. “It's an unusual situation given the amount of information generated in support of the [Yucca Mountain] case. We haven't reached any conclusions on how to deal with it.”

Bechtel SAIC Corp. LLC ended its eight-year run as Yucca Mountain project manager on March 31. It lost a contract renewal bid to USA Repository Services – a joint-venture led by San Francisco-based URS Corp., with Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure Inc., Baton Rouge, La., and French-based Areva SA. In October, the DOE awarded a five-year, $2.5-billion performance-based, cost-plus contract to USA Repository Services. The agreement carries a potential five-year extension through March 31, 2019.

URS is aware of the information that was released yesterday, and we along with USA Repository Services LLC are awaiting formal guidance for future direction from the Dept. of Energy," says URS spokesman Keith Wood.

Southern Nevada had become a formidable project opponent since Yucca Mountain plans were first introduced. The once remote region transformed itself from a sparsely populated desert area into major metropolitan city with financial and political clout. Nevada's Harry Reid serves as Democratic Senate Majority Leader.

“For more than 20 years Nevada has fought the reckless effort to ship the nation's highly radioactive waste to a scientifically unsound location that is only 90 miles from Las Vegas,” Reid said in a written statement. “I thank President Obama for ... working with us to end this irresponsible waste of taxpayer dollars.”

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