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Senate Permits Nuclear Waste Storage Within Yucca Mountain

By Eric Pianin and Helen Dewar


The Senate Tuesday approved a Bush administration plan to store much of the nation’s nuclear waste beneath Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, giving final legislative approval to a project that has been debated for nearly a quarter century.

Despite strong objections from Nevada officials, gambling industry leaders and many environmentalists, the Senate voted 60 to 39 to affirm President Bush’s finding that the $58 billion project is “scientifically sound and suitable” and would enhance protection against terrorist attacks by consolidating the radioactive waste underground.

Fifteen Democrats joined 45 Republicans in approving the project, underscoring widespread concern over management of growing nuclear waste piles at power plants in 39 states.

Congress in the late 1980s authorized the Energy Department to consider Yucca Mountain as the sole site to collect and bury nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for thousands of years. It gave Nevada veto rights, however. Tuesday, the Senate joined the House in overriding Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn’s objection to Bush’s Feb. 15 decision endorsing the plan to bury as much as 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste in desert tunnels 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The vote was a victory for Bush and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who said the project was critical to their efforts to expand domestic energy production. It dealt a blow to Majority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Sen. John Ensign, (R-Nev.), who led the effort to sidetrack the project.

The Senate “cast a very vital and important vote in favor of America’s national security, in favor of America’s energy security and in favor of this country’s environmental security,” Abraham said.

The vote capped an intense lobbying effort by the nuclear energy industry and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent about $72 million since 1994 lobbying for the project. Senate supporters said the vote will help assure the future of the U.S. nuclear power industry by keeping it from “choking on its own waste,” as Sen. Frank Murkowski, (R-Alaska), put it.

Reid, Ensign and other opponents called the administration plan “the big lie,” a project riddled with technical and transportation problems that will not solve the waste storage problem because spent fuel will continue to pile up at nuclear power plants around the country even with a centralized repository.

“We are being forced to decide this issue prematurely, without sufficient scientific information, because this administration is doing the bidding of special interests that simply want to make the deadly waste they have generated someone else’s problem,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

While the legislative issue appears settled, the Energy Department still must obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build and operate the repository--a process that could take four or five years--and overcome a series of lawsuits brought by Nevada state officials.

By relying on a combination of geological barriers and hardened steel-alloy storage casks, the administration contends the government could safely bury the radioactive refuse for at least 10,000 years without it leaching into underground water or escaping into the environment in harmful doses.