updated 4/4/2006 8:39:33 PM ET 2006-04-05T00:39:33

The Bush administration wants to bury tens of thousands more tons of nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain dump in Nevada than is now allowed — part of a package of new proposals meant to spur development of the long-delayed dump.

Legislation unveiled by Energy Department officials Tuesday proposes lifting the 77,000-ton storage limit on the dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas and allowing as much waste as the mountain can safely hold. That figure has been estimated by federal environmental impact studies at 132,000 tons.

Some 55,000 tons of nuclear waste are already waiting at utility sites around the country. Lifting the waste cap would postpone indefinitely the need for the Energy Department to find a site for a second nuclear waste dump, the department said.

The department also proposed dedicating money in a special nuclear waste fund, which is paid for by utilities, to the dump to try to ensure adequate funding. The bill also would allow federal officials, who hope to ship nuclear waste to the dump by rail, to pre-empt state and local transportation regulations.

Certain non-nuclear elements of the dump — including the rail line to get there — could be built before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues a license needed to build the dump. Nuclear material transported to Yucca would be exempt from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a federal law that gives the Environmental Protection Agency control over environmental problems from hazardous wastes.

“This proposed legislation will help provide stability, clarity and predictability to the Yucca Mountain project,” Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a statement.

Democrats ready to rumble
The bill will be introduced in the Senate by Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M. With time running out on the legislative calendar, it faces a fight from ardent Yucca Mountain dump opponent Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate minority leader.

Reid said Tuesday the bill was “not even on life support. It’s dead when it gets here.”

The bill does not propose moving nuclear waste to interim storage sites while the Yucca Mountain dump is completed — something key lawmakers, including Domenici, want the department to consider. Domenici said Tuesday he has to review the administration’s legislation but may introduce his own bill as well.

“It’s very interesting that it doesn’t have interim storage,” Domenici said.

Paul Golan, acting director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, told reporters on a conference call that the department wanted to focus the legislation on measures to speed Yucca to completion.

No firm date for opening
Yucca Mountain was approved by Congress in 2002 and officials wanted it to open in 2010. Energy Department officials now say they hope to open it by 2020, but they won’t give an exact date. They don’t plan to apply for the NRC license until the 2008 fiscal year.

The dump, which has cost $9 billion so far, has suffered a series of setbacks. They include a criminal investigation into accusations that government scientists flouted quality control requirements, and a federal court’s invalidation of the government’s proposed radiation safety standards for the dump.

The delays are causing major financial liabilities for the government, which was contractually obligated to begin accepting spent fuel from nuclear utilities starting in 1998.

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