Congress approves sending nation’s nuclear waste to Nevada site
WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Tuesday to entomb thousands of tons of radioactive waste inside Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert, rejecting the state’s fervent protests and ending years of political debate over nuclear waste disposal.
The vote to override Nevada’s objections to the waste dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas cleared the way for President Bush to proceed with the project that has been studied for more than two decades.
Nevada’s senators, who tried for months to rally their colleagues against the Yucca waste dump, argued that the issue was much broader than Nevada. They hoped concerns over thousands of waste shipments crossing 43 states would sway some lawmakers, but were disappointed.
Fifteen Democrats joined all but three Republicans in the 60-39 vote supporting the Yucca site. Many Democrats voting for the site were from states with several nuclear power plants.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., lashed out at nuclear lobbyists and their “unending source of money” for perpetuating “the big lie” that the Nevada dump was urgently needed. The waste — most of it from nuclear power plants — can be kept safely where it is, avoiding the transportation risks, Reid insisted.
If Congress did not act, countered Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, nuclear power itself would be threatened, the government could face lawsuits from utilities, and lawmakers will have to start looking all over again for a waste site with no indication where the search might lead.
Asked why he could not muster more opposition to the Yucca dump among GOP senators, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., replied: “Nimby. Not in my backyard. They do not want to reopen this.”
Bush gave the Yucca project the green light in February, but Nevada filed a formal protest — as was its right under a 1982 nuclear waste law — leaving it for Congress to make a final decision. The House approved the resolution overriding Nevada’s objections in May.
But the fight over Yucca Mountain does not end with the Senate vote on Capitol Hill.
Nevada has five lawsuits pending against the project, and the Energy Department must still get a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which could take up to five years. Even some Yucca supporters admit plans to open the site by 2010 may be too optimistic.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who complained that there were still “far too many questions” about the Yucca site and transportation safety issues, refused to bring up the matter.
That forced Republicans to use a provision of the 1982 law that allows any senator to demand a vote. The same law required both houses of Congress to act by July 26, or the Yucca site would be shut down.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the Senate was forced to act or be “squeezed” by the deadline.
Only three Republicans — Sens. Ensign, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado — opposed the dump. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., did not vote.
Some senators worried that waste shipments might become terrorist targets or lead to radiation releases in a severe accident. They criticized the Energy Department for not clarifying how the waste would get to Nevada and what routes it would take.
But the Bush administration and other Yucca site supporters said leaving the radioactive garbage at power plants and defense sites in 39 states would pose an even greater risk. And they said waste has been transported for years without radiation releases.
“Looking for another site … is not realistic,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., argued, noting Yucca Mountain has been studied for 24 years at a cost of $4.5 billion. While there are still uncertainties to be resolved, he said, “we’re not likely to find a better site next time.”
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the vote “confirms the president’s decision very forcefully.” He said he is convinced that 77,000 tons of waste destined for Yucca can be stored there safely for the tens of thousands of years it will remain highly radioactive.
“I believe it is a safe repository,” said Lott. If the country does not find a central waste site, he said, “we’re going to have to shut down” the nuclear industry.
Opponents focused on transportation, accusing the Energy Department of failing to ensure that waste shipments — anywhere from 175 to 2,200 a year depending on the mix of rail and truck shipments — will be safe and secure.
“While I want this high level nuclear waste out of our state …. there are too many uncertainties, too many unresolved issues and the risks are too high,” said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. His state’s utility has said the waste problem could force it to shut the Prairie Island nuclear power plant.
Environmentalists dubbed the planned waste shipments “mobile Chernobyl” — a reference to the nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union. They see a disaster in the making as the radioactive cargo moves past major cities, over bridges and through tunnels on its way to Nevada.
Murkowski countered, “We’ve not had a single harmful release of radioactivity” in past waste transports.
Abraham promised a transportation plan before the end of next year and said stringent safety requirements will provide an “effective first line of defense” against terrorist threats. “We’ve proven we can more it safely,” he said after the Senate vote.