ASHINGTON, Jan. 30 - Nuclear energy advocates who have said a proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada must be opened before a new power reactor can be ordered are now backing away from that position, as completion of the repository looks later and less certain and the prospect for new reactors improves.
The Energy Department describes the Yucca project as essential to the future of nuclear energy, but private sector advocates are trying to decouple the future of the industry from the government's success there. Some nuclear supporters say the industry has made a strategic error by tying its future to the repository, which was once supposed to open in 1998, and is now scheduled for 2010. The departing energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, said earlier this month that the opening would be even further off than that. In the meantime, as pools for spent fuel fill up, utility companies are building giant concrete-and-steel casks near their reactors designed to hold waste for many decades.
"The problem we now face is largely a product of industry's own making," said James Muckerheide, the state nuclear engineer in Massachusetts, who monitors federal safety regulation of reactors there. "If the industry simply shut up about Yucca Mountain, instead of dishonestly claiming that on-site spent fuel storage is an unacceptable hazard, the issue could have been largely defused," Mr. Muckerheide wrote in a recent e-mail message to colleagues.
The industry has long assumed that opening the waste repository would change the politics and make a new plant more palatable for communities.
Top industry executives are more circumspect, partly because they do not want to appear to be dropping support for the project at Yucca, a volcanic mountain 100 miles north of Las Vegas where the Energy Department has already spent several billion dollars. Among other considerations, they must, as a condition of their plant licenses, have a plan for the waste, and for now, the Yucca site is it. But lately they have raised the idea that new reactors, which may soon be financially practical, need not wait for the Yucca project to be completed.
John W. Rowe, the chairman and chief executive of Exelon, the nation's largest nuclear utility, said that building new reactors would rely on definitive progress on a waste disposal site. While Yucca is the Energy Department's only candidate for a burial site, there could be other options, Mr. Rowe said, if the government took over the ultimate ownership and had responsibility of nuclear waste. That is what the federal government was supposed to do by 1998, under contracts signed with the utilities in the early 1980's.
One alternative to the Yucca project could be the Private Fuel Storage project, in which a consortium of eight utilities has negotiated with an Indian tribe to store fuel on their reservation, west of Salt Lake City, in dry casks for the next few decades.
"My sense is that actual operation of a geologic repository is not a precondition for an order for a new nuclear power plant in this country," said James K. Asselstine, a utility research analyst at Lehman Brothers who was a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1982 to 1987. "I think that the industry and the financial community will want to see sufficient progress in the waste program, either with Yucca Mountain or some other viable alternative."
At the Senate Energy Committee, which has historically provided strong support for nuclear power, Alex Flint, the staff director, said that the companies might be ready to order new reactors much sooner than the Energy Department would be ready to accept waste at the Yucca site, "causing some in the industry to think about other alternatives."
The Energy Department is not backing away from the Yucca project. Kyle E. McSlarrow, who was the deputy secretary of energy for the last two years of President Bush's first term, said in testimony before the Senate Energy Committee in July, in a discussion of new reactors, that "continued progress toward establishing a high-level waste repository at the Yucca Mountain site is absolutely essential." In March, at a subcommittee hearing, Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, who is one of the most prominent supporters of nuclear energy, said, "what holds America at bay now is we don't know what to do with the waste disposal from the nuclear power plants."
A spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying group, Steven Kerekes, said, "We believe it's the government's job to find a solution, whether that be Yucca Mountain or somewhere else." But, he added, the government is making progress at Yucca Mountain, and that progress, as opposed to actual opening of the site, is what Wall Street and other important participants required.
For years the lack of progress at Yucca Mountain made little difference because unfavorable financial conditions kept operators from placing orders for new reactors. But with higher prices for natural gas, which is an important competitor of nuclear power, and talk of some federal financial incentives for generators that do not produce greenhouse gases, industry executives hope to break ground on a new reactor by 2010. Optimists think the Yucca site could open in 2015, but most estimates are later.
Last July, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit guaranteed a major additional delay for the Yucca project by throwing out the rules that the Environmental Protection Agency had established for maximum allowable leakage at the site. If the Yucca site is to open, Congress may have to vote at least once more, and Yucca Mountain's most powerful opponent, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, just became Senate minority leader.
Another difficulty for the Yucca project is that above-ground storage may be cheaper, at least for the foreseeable future. Brian J. O'Connell, the director of the Nuclear Waste Project Office at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, an association of state officials, said that a case could be made that a centralized cask storage area "could be a cost-saver for the Department of Energy," especially compared with the emerging solution of placing cask fields at about 72 different sites. Burial expenses, and the complexity of burial, would be reduced after several hundred years, when some of the radioactivity has died, some experts said.