The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada cleared a significant procedural hurdle on January 10, when US energy secretary Spencer Abraham informed Gov Kenny Guinn that he intends to recommend that president Bush certify the site as suitable for a permanent repository for spent fuel and high-level waste. But the battle to block the facility is far from over.

Abraham’s announcement follows last month’s completion of nine additional public hearings into the project. The state of Nevada subsequently called for a judicial review of the project after a leaked draft report by the General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress, called for a site recommendation decision to be delayed. However, Abraham dismissed the report, saying it was “fatally flawed” and that it had been assembled to support a predetermined conclusion.

The notification, required by the Waste Policy Act, triggers a formal site approval process. Abraham could forward his recommendation to the White House as early as February 10, 2002. If the President responds favourably, Nevada will have 60 days to object, something it almost certainly will do. Congress must then attempt to override the state’s objection by simple majorities of both legislative chambers within 90 calendar days of continuous session.

Abraham’s move comes nearly 20 years after Congress first legislated a process for siting the nation’s first permanent repository for spent commercial nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons waste. Back then, Congress selected nine locations in six states as potential repository sites and thought a facility would be ready by 1998. It mandated that the federal government be prepared to begin taking charge of spent fuel by January 1998. In 1987, the Waste Policy Act was amended to focus the effort on Nevada. Amidst continuing technical, political and bureaucratic controversy, the earliest that Yucca Mountain could go into operation would be 2010.

One result of the delay has been a series of utility lawsuits against DoE, claiming damages of as much as $50 billion as a result of the government’s failure to meet the 1998 fuel-transfer deadline. These suits are pending in the federal claims court.

The nuclear industry hailed Abraham’s announcement. Joe Colvin, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said: “With nearly two decades of exhaustive analysis to support this action, the impending recommendation to the President that Yucca Mountain is a suitable site to build a state-of-the-art nuclear waste management facility is the right scientific thing to do.” C S Hinnant, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of Progress Energy, said: “The lack of a federal repository has left the operators of nuclear plants around the country with no option but to develop interim plans for increased storage of spent nuclear fuel.” Hinnant added: “Studies have shown Yucca Mountain to be an ideal site for long-term storage of nuclear waste and it is time to move forward.” CP&L and Florida Power are subsidiaries of Progress Energy.

Nevada Gov Kenny Guinn, an outspoken foe of the facility, was defiant after his phone conversation with Abraham. “I told him that I am damn disappointed in the decision and to expect my veto,” he said, adding: “I explained to him that we will fight it in the Congress, in the Oval Office, in every regulatory body we can – we’ll take all of our arguments to court.” At the conclusion of the call, Guinn told Abraham: “The whole process stinks – and we’ll see him in court.” Two Congressional critics of Yucca Mountain, Sen Harry Reid (D-Nev) and Rep Ed Markey (D-Mass), also questioned the impending suitability finding. Reid said there was a “mountain of evidence that the site is unsuitable.” In Las Vegas, Mayor Oscar Goodman said of the shipments of nuclear waste across states: “This stuff is just a moving target for terrorists and teenagers flying Cessnas.” On January 24 Goodman filed a joint petition with the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on behalf of Las Vegas and Clark County. According to the suit, the damage would include “a reduction of property values, a reduction of the city and county tax base, a reduction of tourism, a reduction of the population and/or population growth, and high levels of anxiety and stress among the people who resident in the city and county.” The Yucca Mountain repository, in the barren desert, 80 miles from Las Vegas, is designed to eventually hold 77,000 tonnes of spent fuel in a series of tunnels 1000 feet from the top of the mountain and 800 feet above the water table. The 103 operating domestic nuclear plants discharge about 2000 tonnes of fuel annually, and more than 30,000 tonnes already accumulated are stored at several dozen nuclear plant sites.

The Yucca Mountain project has already cost about $6 billion, virtually all of it derived from a mill-per-kilowatt-hour surcharge on nuclear power-generated electricity (utilities have actually contributed more than $12 billion, but much of the money remains unspent). Substantial tunnelling has already been completed as part of the prolonged scientific and technical investigation. DoE is committed to having the Yucca Mountain repository licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and estimates it will be ready to do so in 2006.

As part of his rationale for approving Yucca Mountain, Abraham said it would reduce the threat of terrorist assaults on the scattered nuclear-fuel storage facilities by consolidating the waste in one secure site. That argument was also raised recently by the Heritage Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, DC, in a report titled “Defending the American Homeland”. The foundation urged Congress to prod DoE into accelerating the completion of the repository.