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Red Wing and Prairie Island tribal leaders hail Yucca Mountain progress

A major step toward building a national nuclear waste repository has met with support from Red Wing leaders.

The Department of Energy on Wednesday submitted its license application to build a facility at Yucca Mountain, Nev., where proponents hope to store spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste.

If accepted, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will undertake what

officials estimate will be a three-year licensing process.

Local tribal and city leaders lauded the action.

Prairie Island Indian Community Tribal Council President Ron Johnson

called the application submittal "a giant step."

"I hope it goes further than that," he said.

The tribe has long been a supporter of the project, which proposes to store 77,000 metric tons of nuclear waste inside the remote, tunneled-out mountain.

Both the tribe and the city of Red Wing are members of the Nuclear

Waste Strategy Coalition.

City officials have also backed Yucca Mountain in hopes of moving

the waste out of the Red Wing area.

"As neighbors to a nuclear power plant, it is vital to the community to move Yucca Mountain forward and create a permanent repository for this waste," Red Wing City Council President Carol Duff said in a statement.

"It cannot continue to be stored in the backyards of communities like Red Wing, creating a risk of exposure."

The NRC will first decide whether it will accept the application for formal review, Department of Energy officials said at a Wednesday press conference in Washington, D.C.

Currently, the waste is stored at 121 locations in 39 states, including Prairie Island.

Some tribal members live about 600 yards from the Prairie Island nuclear plant's above-ground storage units.

"We've been accumulating cask after cask," Johnson said of the sealed tanks containing nuclear waste.

Johnson said he would like to see Yucca Mountain open by 2012 -- the estimated year when the Prairie Island nuclear plant is due to be re-licensed.

Tribal leaders monitor the project's progress daily, he said. That won't change as the project moves forward.

"If it merits me going to D.C. to lobby on behalf of Yucca Mountain, I would definitely do it in a heartbeat," Johnson said.

The project faces stiff opposition from politicians led by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The Nevada Democrat issued a swift condemnation of the application submittal and urged opponents to sign a petition calling for an end to the project.

Florence Township Chairwoman Joan Marshman helped lead her community's fight in the mid-1990s when Northern States Power was considering storing the casks there.

She still follows nuclear waste storage issues closely, and called Wednesday's news significant.

"Any time they're moving forward on these storage issues, it's a big deal," Marshman said.

But before approving Yucca Mountain, experts need to get a better handle on radioactive waste, she said.

"They don't understand the power of the waste," Marshman said, recalling how she could feel heat radiating from a cask she was allowed to examine on an inspection of the units.