WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House's 2018 budget plan for the U.S. Department of Energy includes $120 million for nuclear waste programs including the restart of licensing for Nevada's Yucca Mountain, a project stalled for years by lawsuits and local opposition.

The move signals that President Donald Trump may consider that nuclear waste solutions could extend the lives of existing U.S. nuclear power plants and speed up innovations in next- generation nuclear plants that backers say are safer than previous reactors.

Congress will debate the budget and it is uncertain whether funds for waste will remain in the plan.

While Yucca Mountain would store waste on a practically permanent basis, the budget money would also support programs for storing waste at interim sites before Yucca opens.

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"These investments would accelerate progress on fulfilling the federal government's obligations to address nuclear waste, enhance national security, and reduce future taxpayer burden," according to a summary of the budget.

Yucca has been studied by the U.S. government since the 1970s as a potential repository for the nation's radioactive waste and billions of dollars have been spent on it.

But Yucca has never opened because of legal challenges and widespread opposition from local politicians, environmentalists and Native American groups.

In 2010, then-President Barack Obama withdrew the license to store waste at Yucca amid opposition from then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a fellow Democrat from Nevada.

Maria Korsnick, the head of the Nuclear Energy Institute industry group, said the industry was encouraged by the plan for waste projects but that nuclear energy innovators were "nervous" about cuts to programs that have supported public-private partnerships to bring new nuclear technologies to market.

The budget eliminates funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy and an innovative technology loan guarantee program that have been popular with both Democrats and many Republicans.

Trump's energy secretary, Rick Perry, told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing that restarting the Yucca Mountain project could not be ruled out, but that he would collaborate with states.

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"I am very aware that this is an issue this country has been flummoxed by for 30 years. We have spent billions of dollars on this issue," Perry told the hearing in January. "I’ll work closely with you and the members of this committee to find the answers to this issue."

The White House proposal for the Department of Energy budget calls for an overall cut of 5.6 percent.

(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Peter Cooney)