After decades of scientific studies and heavy-duty politicking, Congress finally gave the green light earlier this month for nuclear reactor sites around the nation to send their deadliest nuclear wastes to the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada.
This should allay worries by Gov. Jim Hodges and other South Carolinians that the dangerous N-wastes the Department of Energy plans to ship from Rocky Flats, Colo., won't be permanently stored at the Savannah River Site.
Hodges' fear is that the wastes won't ever leave SRS if the multimillion dollar program to convert the wastes into fuel for nuclear reactors falls through - either because Congress fails to fund it in the years ahead or DOE changes its mind.
There are other potential pitfalls ahead as well, notwithstanding that Aiken is expected to be one of the very first sites to move its wastes to Nevada. That plan is not as reassuring as it should be because, though the congressional fight is over, the court battles and contentious licensing procedures are just getting underway.
DOE officials say it could be late in 2004 before the department completes the application for permanent Yucca Mountain storage.
Then the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could take up to four years to consider approval of the project, with numerous public meetings along the way; you can be sure the anti-nuke crowd will be at every one of them.
There also will be an endless string of lawsuits filed against Yucca Mountain. Five are already in the pipeline. Nevada's governor is just as determined as South Carolina's governor to keep the N-waste out of his state. Environmental foes also will be busy with their court challenges.
In many cases, the lawsuits will be designed not only to win, but failing that, to tie the Yucca Mountain project up in court indefinitely.
Yet if everything goes DOE's way - that is, the agency gets the NRC license on schedule and wins every round in court - the soonest SRS could begin its shipments to Nevada would be 2010. It will take that long to get the underground storage tunnel ready to receive the wastes.
So although Congress' long-awaited vote of approval is welcome - the process couldn't move forward without it - it is still just one step in a much longer journey that is just getting underway. There are still many miles to travel.
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