LAS VEGAS - State hearings opened Monday on a water-pumping request for a proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain - a federal project that would face more delays if the pumping rights are denied.
''Water is necessary for the repository to be constructed and operated,'' said Scott Wade, an environmental safety and health specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy.
''We'd have to stop and strongly reconsider our application'' if the ground water rights are denied, Wade added outside the hearing on groundwater rights, being conducted by state Engineer Mike Turnipseed.
Without the rights, Wade said project work would be difficult, but wouldn't necessarily end.
The DOE is currently relying on a temporary permit that expires in 2002. Wade noted that before the temporary permit was issued, the DOE briefly trucked water to the site 100 miles north of Las Vegas.
Dump foes at the hearing included Bob Loux, head of the state Nuclear Projects Agency, who said Nevadans overwhelmingly oppose the high-level nuclear waste project.
''In the immortal words of Mark Twain, 'Whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting about,' and we're prepared to fight for the well-being of Nevadans,'' added Deputy Attorney General Marta Adams.
Adams argued that granting the permits wouldn't be in Nevadans' best interests because of the potential contamination of ground water and adverse effects to Nevada's tourist-dependent economy.
If 5 percent of Nevada's tourists stayed home because of concern about nuclear waste, it could cost as many as 35,000 jobs, according to James Chalmers, an economist for PricewaterhouseCoopers who headed a study of the dump's impact.
''The Nevada economy is extremely susceptible to the view of people outside the state,'' said Chalmers, who began studying the impact of the proposed nuclear dump in 1985. ''The negative imagery of a nuclear dump could effect (visitors') decisions to come to Nevada. This project, in my opinion, offers very few attractive outcomes for the state.''
Attorneys for the DOE objected throughout Chalmers testimony, saying the issue was whether use of the water would be detrimental to the public interest - not whether a nuclear dump is good.
The DOE maintains that all state standards for the water rights can be met. The federal agency says waste would sealed in metal containers within rock tunnels about 1,000 feet underground and 1,000 feet above the water table.
While the DOE concedes there's no absolute certainty that waste will be totally sealed for thousands of years, the agency says the Yucca Mountain site appears workable.
Yucca Mountain is the only site the DOE is studying for storage of the nation's high-level nuclear waste. Its efforts have been heavily backed by the nuclear energy industry.
Nevada, backed by various environmental groups, has been battling the DOE since a long-term storage facility was first proposed for southern Nevada more than a decade ago.
As the debate continues, lethal commercial waste continues to stack up at nuclear plants around the nation - now more than 42,000 tons, mostly in cooling pools not designed for permanent safekeeping.
Critics argue it makes more sense to improve storage of most high-level waste where it is currently located than to build the site at Yucca Mountain.
The state engineer's hearings run through Wednesday in Las Vegas and continue next Monday in Carson City. Turnipseed will issue a ruling after hearing the testimony and doing a follow-up review of materials submitted at the sessions.