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Calls to Use Yucca Mountain as a Nuclear Waste 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 Obama and by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. 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 John M. Shimkus, Republican of Illinois, 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 around the country, 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 over $20 billion.

Yucca, a volcanic structure adjacent to what was formerly known as the Nevada Test Site, where the government exploded hundreds of nuclear bombs, was never described as the best place for burying nuclear waste, only an acceptable one about which a consensus could be achieved. The Energy Department selected Yucca Mountain as one of five candidate sites in 1986, under a procedure laid out by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which Congress passed in 1982. But in 1987, Congress amended the act to designate Yucca as the prime site, telling the department not to study anything else unless it found Yucca unsuitable.

In 1994, the Energy Department began drilling a five-mile tunnel through the mountain. By 1997, the department was burying metal containers in the rock, and heating them up to simulate nuclear waste, to study the effect on water and rock in the immediate area.

The project suffered a major setback in 2004 when the federal Court of Appeals in Washington, ruling in a case brought by Nevada, said that to use Yucca, the government would have to show that it would contain the wastes safely for hundreds of thousands of years, not just the 10,000 years that the Energy Department was planning. By that time, the department had already concluded that the period of peak releases would be in about 300,000 years.

But the real blow was the election of Barack Obama, who as a candidate for president promised to kill the project. And Mr. Reid blocked further funding for the Energy Department to design the repository and pursue a license to open it, and to the commission to evaluate that license application, as called for in the 1982 act.

In 2010, the Energy Department shut down the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which was running the Yucca program.

Correction: October 18, 2014

An article on Friday about calls to use Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a nuclear waste site misidentified, in some copies, the home state of Representative John M. Shimkus, a Republican, who said the latest report confirmed that the facility was safe and secure. He is from Illinois, not Michigan.

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