President signs law making Yucca Mountain nation’s nuclear dump
WASHINGTON — Over Nevada’s fervent protests, President Bush signed a bill Tuesday making Yucca Mountain the nation’s central repository for nuclear waste.
“The successful completion of the Yucca Mountain project will ensure our nation has a safe and secure underground facility that will store nuclear waste in a manner that protects our environment and our citizens,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a statement.
The project had been studied for more than 20 years, and Bush signed the measure with no fanfare. Reporters were not allowed to witness the bill-signing.
Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn downplayed the signing as a formality.
“(It) does little more than end the political process,” said the Republican governor. “Our best chance in defeating Yucca Mountain is in the federal courts, where impartial judges will hear the factual and scientific arguments as to why Yucca Mountain is not a safe place to store this nation’s high-level nuclear waste.”
The House and Senate voted earlier to entomb thousands of tons of radioactive waste inside Yucca Mountain — in the desert some 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
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 they were defeated.
Bush has long backed Yucca Mountain as a repository site, formally recommending it in February.
Nevada filed a formal protest — as was its right under a 1982 nuclear waste law — leaving it for Congress to decide the issue. The House approved it in May, the Senate this month.
The state has five lawsuits pending against the project, and the Energy Department must still get a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That process could take up to five years.
Even some Yucca supporters admit that plans to open the site by 2010 may be too optimistic.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said he was convinced that 77,000 tons of waste destined for Yucca could be stored there safely for the tens of thousands of years that it will remain highly radioactive.
Opponents maintain that the Energy Department and project scientists have not answered crucial questions about whether the Yucca site can safely keep radioactivity from leaking into the air or water.
“Why are we rushing to judgment on this?” asked Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert, a Las Vegas anti-nuclear group. “We should wait for the science to be done.”
Johnson vowed to fight on, and pointed to a Senate subcommittee vote Monday that cut from $525 million to $336 million the money Bush sought for work at site. The panel was headed by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a foe of Yucca Mountain.
The Bush administration and other Yucca site supporters have said leaving the radioactive garbage at 131 power plants and defense sites in 39 states would pose an even greater risk than hauling it to Nevada. And they said waste has been transported for years without radiation releases.
But critics, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., complained that there were still “far too many questions” about the Yucca site and transportation safety issues.
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.
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 terrorists. “We’ve proven we can move it safely,” he said after the Senate vote.