WASHINGTON – After nearly two decades of study and years of political infighting, the Department of Energy has recommended opening Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste site.
The announcement, made Thursday by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, is sure to outrage environmental groups and key Nevada politicians who have vigorously fought the opening of the facility for years.
Abraham, in notifying Nevada's governor of the decision, said "sound science and compelling national interests" as well as growing concern about nuclear materials since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks require wastes to be consolidated at a central site.
If President Bush concurs with Abraham's recommendation, the state is expected to challenge the decision and send the matter to the floor of Congress for a vote.
The federal government has for decades been looking for a suitable spot to dispose of some 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, and settled on Yucca Mountain in the 1980s. The facility was completed but never opened because of local opposition.
A total of $7 billion has been spent so far on studying the project, which is expected to cost $58 billion more to build if it opens completely on schedule in 2010. The waste would be stored in tunnels carved out 1,000 feet below the surface and would remain radioactive for more than 10,000 years.
The Department of Energy concluded last summer that the Nevada mountain is a safe location for the long-term storage of the fuel. The department considers its remote location, arid conditions and the stability of the volcanic rock that surrounds the storage areas almost uniquely suitable for nuclear waste storage.
"The secretary made his decision on sound science," said Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis.
A General Accounting Office report earlier this year, however, said there many safety questions remain unresolved and urged the Bush administration to indefinitely postpone its decision.
Abraham toured the remote site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas and 20 miles east of the California line, earlier this week, a visit that drew protests from Nevada elected officials who strongly oppose the project.
"It's supposed to be based on sound science," Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign said of the decision whether or not to use the facility, "not compelling national interest."
Ensign joined Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Gov. Kenny Guinn, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and other elected officials earlier this week on the steps of the federal courthouse in Las Vegas to underscore their opposition to the project.
Nevada is fighting the project on environmental, public relations and legal fronts. The state already has filed three federal lawsuits trying to block the proposal.
Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks raised the profile of nuclear waste storage and safety, the Energy Department was being pressed to find a place to dispose of the nation's 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste. Yucca Mountain was the only site under study, and has been for 20 years. Study of the proposal has cost some $7 billion during that time.
Nuclear waste is currently stored in casks at 103 commercial reactors and various industrial and military sites around the nation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.