Bush to meet with Nevada governor, senators, on Yucca decision
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush was giving top Nevada officials one final hearing on Thursday before taking action, possibly as soon as early next week, to approve construction of a nuclear waste site in Nevada.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham endorsed the site last month, but by law has to wait 30 days to give a formal recommendation to the president. That time is up this Saturday and Bush is expected to make a decision quickly, congressional and administration sources said.
Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, who is highly critical of Abraham’s endorsement of the site, was invited to make one last-ditch argument to Bush in an Oval Office meeting Thursday. The state’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Harry Reid and Republican John Ensign, were also participating in that closed-door meeting in hopes of persuading the president to hold off on any decision.
Guinn said he will tell Bush that he will exercise a state veto if the president approves Yucca Mountain. Congress can override such a veto.
“I want him to hear it from me that I will veto it,” Guinn told The Associated Press. “This is a decision vital to the people of Nevada. We want to express our concerns that the science isn’t ready.”
Guinn recalled that while campaigning for president, Bush made a written promise that any decision on the Yucca Mountain site would be made on the basis of “sound science.”
The governor cited a recent report by the independent Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board criticizing the Energy Department’s scientific analysis of the Yucca Mountain site as “weak to moderate.” And he cited a November report by the General Accounting Office that said some 293 issues should be addressed before the proposed repository is licensed.
With Nevada officials vowing to try to prevent the shipment of up to 77,000 tons of nuclear waste into their state, a final decision will be up to Congress.
Bush will not make a final decision until he gets the report from Abraham but is expected to approve the Yucca Mountain site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, said White House sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“He trusts the energy secretary’s judgment,” said one source. Abraham has briefed Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge about the need for a centralized site for storing highly radioactive nuclear waste and Ridge “saw no reason to object,” said the source.
Even after a presidential decision, it will be years before the site — once it gets a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — would be ready to take any of the waste now kept in spent fuel pools and concrete bunkers at nuclear power plants around the country.
Abraham, who notified Nevada officials on Jan. 10 that he will recommend the site to the president, called it a “scientifically sound and suitable” place to bury the nation’s used reactor fuel now kept at the power plants.
The Energy Department’s schedule calls for opening the site to waste shipments by 2010, but that timetable could be optimistic, government and industry officials acknowledge.
Meanwhile, Nevada officials, fully expecting a go-ahead from Bush, are revving up for a tough fight in Congress, which will have 90 days to overrule the Nevada objection if it comes to that.
One reason Bush wants to make a decision quickly is that he wants to give Nevada as little time as possible to lobby other lawmakers on the issue, said both administration and congressional sources closely watching the issue.
According to congressional sources, at this point almost all of the Republicans — and a good number of Democrats — appear ready to support the president on building the Yucca Mountain repository.
Ensign and Rep. James Gibbons, also a Republican, are stepping up efforts to try to sway some GOP lawmakers to oppose the site.
“They need time,” said one congressional source, who said that perhaps as many as 20 Republicans might have to be convinced to oppose their president if Nevada’s objections are to be sustained.
Under a 1987 law that designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada to be the only location to be studied for waste disposal, Nevada has 60 days to override a presidential decision. Congress then has 90 legislative days to counter Nevada’s objection by a majority vote in both the House and Senate.
If the president’s decision is affirmed, the Energy Department can begin preparing an application for an NRC license to build and operate the underground facility. The licensing process is likely will take several years.