Nevada legal team outlines plans for Yucca Mountain fight
LAS VEGAS — The legal team leading Nevada’s fight against the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump outlined a theme, a strategy and the confidence Wednesday that they can block the project in the courts.
“Simply put, the project is unsafe at any price,” state Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa said.
She urged opponents of the dump not to give up even though President Bush signed a law Tuesday designating the desert site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas as the place to entomb 77,000 tons of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste.
“It is far too soon to be discouraged,” Del Papa said as she and Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Joe Egan previewed what they’ll tell the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects on Thursday in Las Vegas. The seven-member board oversees the state’s anti-Yucca efforts.
Egan outlined key parts of the cases pending in federal courts and said the state’s multimillion dollar legal battle to prove that the federal Energy Department’s project is unsafe could take three years.
Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said his department’s application for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will demonstrate that the site will be safe.
“We believe we have a strong scientific and legal case to move forward,” Davis said. “The NRC now has a chance to review the science, and we certainly believe the courts will find that we complied with the law.”
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 called for the Energy Department to submit a license application to the NRC within 90 days after the president signed a site designation law.
Davis said the license application will take 3 1/2 years.
“The NRC has said when we have an application, they will consider it,” Davis said. “We don’t anticipate any issues arising from the 90-day deadline.”
Bob Loux, Nevada Nuclear Projects Office director, said the state has not made a decision whether to sue if the Energy Department misses the late October deadline. He said the state expects to spend $4 million or more on the legal fight this year and more in following years.
Egan, who has a degree in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and specializes in nuclear cases in federal courts, has been retained by Nevada for three years at $2.5 million.
“Yucca Mountain may meet numerical regulations,” the lawyer said, referring to federal radiation and pollution standards that he said the federal government shaped to suit findings at the site. “But it is not a safe repository.”
Egan said that while Nevada has filed five cases in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, two cases challenging the standards the Energy Department and President Bush relied upon when picking the site have been consolidated.
Federal lawyers have asked the court to fold in another case, challenging aspects of the Energy Department’s final environmental impact statement, Egan said.
The state also is suing the Environmental Protection Agency over its radiation standards and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over its licensing rules.
A case between the federal government and the state over water rights is pending in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas.
Egan said lawyers have found “red flag after red flag, smoking gun after smoking gun” in volumes of Energy Department administrative records covering 20 years of Yucca Mountain study.
He pointed to a provision of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 prohibiting the federal government from temporary aboveground storage of nuclear waste in Nevada.
He said the environmental impact study for Yucca Mountain provides for a 100-acre surface storage site.
“We go to the judge and say, ‘Please read the statute. Please read the document.’ And unless they want to call a crocodile a bird, they cannot say it complies,” Egan said.