By - Alicia Hills Moore

(FORTUNE Magazine) – If reactor phobia faded, only one serious roadblock would bar a new round of nuclear expansion: the lack of a burial site for the 1,700 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel that accumulates annually at power stations. The government's quest to solve the problem has proceeded at a pace that makes the interminable case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Charles Dickens's Bleak House look like a rush job. That a suitable spot can be found is seldom disputed. ''Underground storage is feasible,'' declares Thomas H. Pigford of the nuclear engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley. Environmentalists and other critics have no reason to block eventual disposal somewhere. The U.S. has no alternative: It must find a resting place for the lethal waste from military weapons, much of it in aging temporary containers. Last year Congress tried to hurry matters along by picking Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada as a candidate for the first underground repository. Don't hold your breath. The Energy Department must still run a gantlet of regulatory approvals before it gets far along on a six-year, $1.5 billion process of ''site characterization'' -- an analysis of the site's suitability. Only after 800 experts have studied the rock 1,000 feet beneath the mountain can a decision be made. The first spent fuel would arrive no earlier than 2003. The site is where the Nevada underground nuclear weapons test area abuts a U.S. Air Force bombing range. Pigford doubts the nuclear testing would disturb the buried fuel canisters, but others worry that military planes might hit above-ground facilities. All the same, the place looks promising. Only six inches of rain falls per year, and the Energy Department estimates that only 0.02% of this would ever reach the repository. If radioactivity leaked out of the fuel canisters, it would take at least 9,000 years for that small amount of contaminated water to transport it to the water table 1,000 feet below. Tests have shown that the underground rock, which is compacted volcanic ash, would slow the movement of the most radioactive particles. After 10,000 years, nuclear fuel loses nearly all its punch.