YUCCA MOUNTAIN, Nev. -- Atop Yucca Mountain, geologist Gregory Fasano gazed out over the sterile landscape of the Nevada desert 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"It looks like the end of the world, doesn't it?" he said of the barren desert floor 1,200 feet below.
Few would disagree. That's why the U.S. nuclear industry thinks Yucca Mountain is the perfect place for the United States to bury one of its most pressing problems -- 70,000 tons of deadly radioactive waste, the residue of 20 years' operation of U.S. nuclear reactors.
"The government owes it to us to take the waste," said Philip Bayne, president of the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the industry. "If not, everyone -- ratepayers, shareholders, taxpayers -- is going to suffer."
But 13 years after a federal law called for the U.S. Department of Energy to open Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste disposal by 1998, the project remains at least 15 years from completion, its projected cost has soared to 250 times initial projections -- and it may be scrapped completely by Congress.
The uncertainty has nuclear power companies, including Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., scrambling for other potential waste sites, on which they could spend as much as $5 billion. BGE spent $24 million in 1993 to build a temporary storage facility at its Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.
Those costs would come out of the pockets of their customers, who already have had $9 billion in their utility payments set aside for the project in a pool created by the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
What the industry hoped would be a solution has instead become a symbol of the perils of the nuclear age. It has encountered vehement opposition from the state of Nevada and an avalanche of red tape, amid dire predictions that an accident at Yucca Mountain would create a disaster of epic proportions.
The industry says the need is severe: 26 of the country's 109 nuclear plants will run out of room to store their radioactive waste in the next three years.
"We're saying to the government: 'You have nearly $10 billion of our money, now we want something in return,' " said Shawn Cooper, a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.
The San Francisco-based utility is one of 15 power companies that have gone to court to demand that the Energy Department be forced to take the waste in 1998, as required by the 1982 law.
Meanwhile, a group of 30 utilities led by Minneapolis-based Northern States Power Co. is negotiating with the Mescalero Apaches to build a $96 million above-ground temporary storage facility on the tribe's reservation in New Mexico.
Parsippany, N.J.-based General Public Utilities Corp. may spend about $15 million to store excess waste in concrete-encased steel canisters near its Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Forked River, N.J.
The Energy Department wants to dig 10 miles of tunnels through Yucca Mountain. Waste from nuclear plants, which supply the United States with one-fifth of its electricity, would be buried 1,000 feet underground in stainless-steel canisters. When full, the tunnels would be sealed for at least 10,000 years.
The department says it has spent $1.7 billion just to study Yucca Mountain. The project's total cost could reach $20 billion, it says. The initial cost estimate was $80 million.
The cost and delays couldn't have come at a worse time for the Energy Department, which Republicans in Congress want to abolish anyhow.
"Yucca Mountain proves once again that the DOE has become a giant black hole of taxpayer money," said Jerry Taylor, an analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "They ought to drive a stake through its heart."
Daniel Dreyfus, director of the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which oversees the Yucca Mountain project, blames red tape for the high cost of the Yucca Mountain project.
Yucca Mountain in fact has become one of the most intensely regulated government projects in history. TRW Corp., the project's lead contractor, and other companies at the site are under constant scrutiny by a variety of agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Nevada state and local governments, the U.S. General Accounting Office and an independent board appointed by the president.
The department also must clear much of the work at Yucca Mountain with representatives of 17 local American Indian tribes that lay claim to the mountain.
Employees of the site say even routine tasks are stymied by bureaucracy. "It takes me a week to get a letter written and out the door," said Mr. Fasano, the geologist, who works at Yucca Mountain for an Energy Department contractor.
Nevada has played a big part in the delays. Since 1984, the state has sued the Energy Department 12 times to stop Yucca Mountain. Although most of the suits were decided in favor of the project, they slowed work to a crawl.
"The state is committed to doing everything in its power to kill the project," said Bob Loux, executive director of the state Nuclear Waste Project Office in Carson City.
A daunting obstacle is a requirement that scientists prove radioactive waste can be stored safely at the site for at least 10,000 years.
That means years of tedious geological studies and elaborate computer models. A 460-foot boring machine, weighing more than 780 tons, has tunneled through the first 2,500 feet into Yucca Mountain as part of the testing, which will continue until at least 2001.
Complicating matters is the region's history of geologic instability. In 1993, an earthquake measuring 5.6 on the Richter scale struck Little Skull Mountain, only 12 miles from Yucca Mountain. There are 33 earthquake faults in the Yucca Mountain area and several that run through the center of the mountain.
And there are seven inactive volcanoes within sight of the mountain. Energy Department scientists say the odds of an eruption in the next 10,000 years are one in 500 million.
Some researchers disagree. "I think there is a great probability that an earthquake measuring as high as 8.0 on the Richter scale will occur in that time frame and could trigger volcanic activity near Yucca Mountain," said Moid Ahmed, a professor of hydrology at Ohio University, who has written articles questioning the safety of the site.
TC Meanwhile, Congress is considering six bills to deal with the waste problem. One proposes abandoning Yucca Mountain and paying power companies to store the waste themselves. The most popular is one introduced by Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, that would require an interim facility at a former nuclear weapons test site in Nevada until Yucca Mountain is ready.
The Yucca Mountain site would be discarded if tests prove Yucca Mountain to be unsafe for nuclear waste disposal.
In that case, the search for a site would begin all over again.
A new site may be needed even if Yucca Mountain opens. By some estimates, it could be completely full by 2015 -- only five years after it is scheduled to open.