Southern Nevada: Yucca Mountain - DOE seeks land for rail corridor

Las Vegas Sun


WASHINGTON -- The Energy Department has asked permission to reserve use of 308,600 acres of public land across rural Nevada to develop a railroad corridor to the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

DOE (Department of Energy) officials filed an application Dec. 19 with the Bureau of Land Management seeking to withdraw a mile-wide swath of federally managed land along more than 300 miles encompassing parts of Lincoln, Esmeralda and Nye counties.

The Energy Department announced last week that the corridor, originating at a Union Pacific Railroad junction near Caliente, 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas, was its preferred choice for a new rail line to haul spent nuclear fuel to the Yucca site.

DOE officials said they planned to initiate an environmental impact study to determine specific rail alignments within the corridor to the repository site.

Meanwhile Monday, a Nevada-hired transportation expert said he did not think DOE could build a railroad line across challenging terrain without skyrocketing costs and years of delay.

DOE has estimated it could build a 319-mile railroad in 46 months at a cost of $880 million in 2001 dollars.

Robert Halstead, a Wisconsin-based consultant, said Nevada officials have estimated costs at $2.6 billion and a completion timeline of 10 years or longer.

"Caliente is a really tough choice. I've been saying this for years," Halstead said.

A formal notice of DOE's land withdrawal application was published Monday in the Federal Register, initiating a 90-day public comment period. The Bureau of Land Management also plans to hold a public hearing on the matter, but a date has not been set.

Dennis Samuelson, a BLM realty specialist in Reno, said the Interior secretary will decide on DOE's request after environmental studies are completed in about 18 months to two years.

In the meantime, BLM on Monday segregated the land for two years, forbidding new mining claims to be filed on it and preventing the government from disposing of any parcels.

Grazing and recreational use would continue to be allowed, and existing rights of way and leases would be honored during the two-year temporary withdrawal "as long as they do not conflict with the proposed withdrawal," the BLM said.

BLM officials could not say Monday what activities presently take place along the 300-mile stretch of mountain and high desert terrain other than grazing.

If DOE decides to proceed with the rail project after completion of an environmental impact study, its application would likely be narrowed to the actual acreage needed, BLM spokeswoman Jo Simpson said, adding restrictions for other uses would be determined in the final withdrawal order. Pre-existing grazing permits would be honored, she said.

DOE spokesman Allen Benson said Monday the land withdrawal application was routine to allow the department to develop its impact assessments within the corridor.

An environmental impact study issued last year identified issues that DOE will likely confront along the corridor, which runs north toward Panaca and then west. It crosses north of the Nellis Air Force Range and then south, skirting the western edge of the range to Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Among other things, the corridor study listed impacts to 740 acres of desert tortoise habitat and detailed the proximity of riparian areas where water quality might be affected. It numbered 97 recorded archaeological sites, including three dozen not fully studied for protections as historical sites.

DOE applied for a 20-year land withdrawal, which Simpson said was customary. She said DOE would need to apply for extensions to continue use of the land beyond that period. The department plans to ship nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain over a period of two dozen years once it opens.

Halstead said the department is underestimating the job ahead.

"They are talking about going through a range of mountain passes that are 4,000 to 6,000 feet," Halstead said. "I'm not sure the route they've laid out would be feasible without switchbacks and tunnels."

Between the mountains, "you do have lots and lots of environmentally sensitive areas and a lot of difficult soils you are working on," Halstead said. "Add in the seismic issues and flooding issues and this is one hell of a good old engineering challenge to build this sucker."

DOE spokesman Joe Davis said he would not respond to the assessment.

"Halstead says a lot of things, most of which I find unnecessary to respond to with a comment," Davis said in an e-mail message. "Today is no different."

Beyond the technical challenges, Halstead said Nevada officials plan to put legal and procedural roadblocks in front of the railroad line.

One of the state's lawsuits against the Yucca project charges DOE illegally "segmented" the repository project, failing to complete transportation studies before recommending the Nevada site for nuclear waste burial.

"Nevada will use every available tactic appropriately open to us," Halstead said, adding Nevada's congressional delegation may pursue legislation to block the plan by designating restrictive wilderness study areas along the corridor.

Halstead also predicted private landowners will be poised to sue DOE for jeopardizing the value of developable property along the corridor.


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