updated 3/25/2004 8:55:32 AM ET 2004-03-25T13:55:32

If Congress doesn’t provide all of $890 million for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project next fiscal year, the facility will not be able to open on schedule in 2010, a top Energy Department official said at a congressional hearing Wednesday.

“Meeting the 2010 objective will require much greater resources than the program has thus far received,” said Margaret Chu, who as director of the DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management is in charge of the project.

The Bush administration is seeking $559 million, an increase of $155 million, directly for the repository project, including for design and preparation for a license application. The rest of the money would go for developing a plan to transport fuel to the Nevada site and other related programs.

Chu said the department plans to submit its license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December. It will take several years for the review.

“We are committed to the goal of beginning to receive and transport spent nuclear fuel and high-level (government) waste to an NRC-licensed repository in 2010,” Chu told the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water.

After the hearing she told reporters that without all the money the Bush requested, she did not believe the 2010 deadline could be met. She said that 2005 “is a critical year” for the project 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Battle for bucks
The repository, if built, will hold 77,000 tons of highly radioactive spent reactor fuel now at commercial power plants in 31 states and government waste from its nuclear weapons program.

Yucca MountainRep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, the subcommittee chairman, said he’s confident that the administration funding levels will be approved in the House.

The Senate could be another matter. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, has vowed to cut Yucca Mountain funding as much as possible. Nevada has filed a string of lawsuits and is challenging the waste project in the courts.

'Major last stand'
Meanwhile, the Energy Department announced it had hired a new law firm to help present the government’s case for a license to build and operate the Yucca facility. The Washington D.C., firm of Hunton and Williams will represent the department before the NRC, according to a DOE statement.

It will replace the Chicago firm of Winston & Strawn, which withdrew from the project in November, 2001 because of a conflict or interest dispute. It was discovered that Winston & Strawn had conducted lobbying for a pro-nuclear group while working for the Energy Department.

Hobson said he worried that adding a new legal team at this late date might force the government to play “catch up” against the team of lawyers assembled by the state of Nevada as it challenges the NRC license application.

“This is a major last stand” by the state against the Yucca project, he said.

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