WASHINGTON – A long-delayed nuclear waste dump in Nevada that has cost $9 billion so far is years away from opening, the project's director told frustrated lawmakers Wednesday, and will be at capacity from radioactive waste now accumulating.
The Energy Department also plans to determine the need for a second site for an underground dump, said Paul Golan, acting director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.
Department officials had most recently set 2012 as the projected opening for the first nuclear waste dump, at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, but have backed off that goal. Golan would only say Wednesday, "We should be able to open it next decade." The original target was 1998.
"It's obvious the 2012 date is now out the window," said Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Appropriations' energy subcommittee.
Some 55,000 tons of waste are collecting at commercial reactor sites in 39 states and high-level waste is being stored at defense sites, too. Yucca Mountain is supposed to hold 77,000 tons of radioactive waste.
"Frankly I don't want to build eight Yucca Mountains," said Hobson, who has pressed the department to establish interim, aboveground storage sites for nuclear waste.
Golan said his understanding is the department does not have the power to do that without congressional approval. The House agreed to the idea last year, but the Senate rejected it.
Lawmakers are awaiting a proposal from the administration to facilitate the construction of Yucca Mountain. Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell said at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Wednesday that the proposal would include changing the way Yucca is funded and withdrawing public land around the property to create a permanent site for the dump.
In combination with the administration's new plan to recycle nuclear waste, these steps could postpone indefinitely the need to find a second dump site, Sell said in written testimony.
The department still must apply for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to open Yucca Mountain. Golan said the department will not be ready for that step until after the budget year that ends Sept. 30, 2007, but he said a better schedule should be developed this summer.
Among Yucca Mountain's problems are a federal court's rejection of the government's original radiation safety standards for the dump; a controversy over fabricated quality assurance data; and political opposition from home-state lawmakers, including Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate's top Democrat.