updated 12/19/2003 11:23:53 AM ET 2003-12-19T16:23:53

Nevada's legal team will tell a federal appeals court that the government is trying to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain even though it does not meet the original legal requirements for a dump, lawyers said Thursday.

The hearing Jan. 14 before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will cover six lawsuits that the state filed against the federal government between 2000 and 2002, and that have been consolidated.

For Nevada, which has failed in the political arena for over two decades to stop the dump, the courts might represent the state's best chance of keeping out 77,000 tons of the nation's most radioactive waste, lawyers said at a media briefing. The waste would be buried for 10,000 years at a desert site 90 miles from Las Vegas.

"I think that this is the first time that any court in this country is really going to look at the fundamental legal merits of this project," said Joe Egan, Nevada's lead lawyer in the Yucca case.

Egan and other lawyers outlined a series of arguments that accuse the government of learning, after it began studying Yucca Mountain, that the site could not satisfy Congress's original mandate of "geological isolation." Instead studies demonstrated that the site would be at risk of dangerous seepage, they said.

Rather than abandon the site, the Energy Department changed the rules and declared it suitable, the lawyers said.

Yucca MountainThey accused the department of improperly evaluating the environmental effects of the project and said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham unlawfully recommended its approval to President Bush. They contend the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed to comply with the law in developing licensing rules and standards for the project.

Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said the department has followed the law and that a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain would be safe. He said Nevada's lawsuits "are simply misguided."

"In the end, if the science doesn't meet the standards, it's not going to be built. In the end, we believe the science will meet the standards," Davis said.

Congress and Bush approved sending nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain last year, but the department does not expect to open the site until at least 2010.

The department still must apply for a license from the NRC, which it plans to do a year from now.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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