World and Nation

Calls to use a proposed nuclear site, now deemed safe

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday released a long-delayed report on the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a disposal spot for nuclear waste, finding that the design met the commission’s requirements, laying the groundwork to restart the project if control of the Senate changes hands in the elections next month.

Republicans have been pushing to use the site, about 100 miles from Las Vegas, to store spent reactor fuel and highly radioactive leftovers from Cold War bomb-making, but they have been blocked by President Barack Obama and by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev.

A final ruling would have to come from the commission itself, and the state of Nevada and other opponents have promised lawsuits.

But the report released Thursday, mostly done in 2010 but frozen until a recent court decision, concluded that the design had the required multiple barriers, to assure long-term isolation of radioactive materials.

It set off immediate calls among Republicans to bring the project back to life.

“Today’s report confirms what we’ve expected all along: Nuclear waste stored under that mountain, in that desert, surrounded by federal land, will be safe and secure for at least a million years,” said Rep. John M. Shimkus, R-Mich., who is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The report “should only add to the bipartisan support the repository has consistently received in both the House and Senate,” he said in a statement.

At the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit Washington group, Timothy Frazier, a former Energy Department official who heads the nuclear waste program there, said “it makes it hard, based on what they’ve written, for someone to say that Yucca Mountain is not technically acceptable.”

“If the Senate flips, you’re going to get money in the Senate appropriations bill to do something for Yucca Mountain,” he said.

And there would probably also be money for temporary centralized storage of the waste now accumulating at more than 70 reactor sites, he said. Congress has been stalemated on that point, with some proponents of Yucca Mountain trying to block any interim alternatives.

The stalemate, combined with delays because of technical problems, has become costly for taxpayers.

Under the terms of a 1982 law, the Energy Department collected tens of billions of dollars in fees from reactor owners and was obligated to start taking the wastes in January 1998.

Because it has not done so and has no prospect of taking wastes for years to come, the courts have assessed billions of dollars of damages against the Energy Department for the contract failure, and the potential liability runs well past $20 billion.