The director, Edward F. Sproat III, who is in charge of work on the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, said that the process of trying to open one repository had been so slow and expensive that this was not a good time to start looking for another.
The future of the entire repository program may be in flux anyway because President-elect Barack Obama has called for finding another solution. But Mr.
Sproat noted that the law called for his department to pursue the opening of the Yucca site.
Originally, the government promised utility companies that it would begin accepting nuclear waste in 1998 and began accepting payments from them of one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour generated at their reactors. The government now predicts that a waste repository will open by 2020 at the earliest, and clearing the backlog could take many decades. Because of the delay, the government will owe commercial damages to the utilities of $11 billion or more.
When Congress sent the Energy Department to look for places to bury waste from civilian reactors and the nuclear weapons program in the 1980s, the idea was for two repositories, one in the West and one in the East, and the Energy Department listed a dozen sites in seven states, ranging from Maine to Minnesota and Mississippi. Congress eventually ordered the department to focus on Yucca Mountain, but set a limit of 70,000 metric tons of uranium and plutonium wastes, and to report back if another was needed.
Mr. Sproat, who spoke at a conference on nuclear waste held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies here, said that the inventory of waste would reach 70,000 tons by 2010.
He said, however, that the repository could hold all the waste that has been produced so far, as well as the waste that will be produced by the 103 existing power reactors for the duration of their lives and all the waste from at least the first handful of new reactors, if any are built.
But a geologist and nuclear expert who spoke at the conference said the Yucca Mountain repository might never open. It does not meet international standards for a repository because it is in an area of active earthquakes and volcanoes, said the expert, Allison M. Macfarlane, associate professor of environmental policy and social science at George Mason University.
We will probably need to have multiple repositories, Dr. Macfarlane said. Lets not cut the nuclear industry off at its knees.
She and Mr. Sproat agreed that the choice of a repository site was political. One way to assure a fair political choice, she said, is to have multiple repositories.