Web Extra  Saturday, February 16, 2002

Bush approves Yucca Mountain as nuclear waste repository

President Bush on Friday approved the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada as the nation’s first geologic repository for the underground disposal of radioactive waste.

In a letter to Congress announcing his decision, Bush said, "Proceeding with the repository program is necessary to protect public safety, health and the nation's security," The Washington Post reported.

The president made his decision hours after Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham Thursday gave Bush his official OK of the site. “I have considered whether sound science supports the determination that the Yucca Mountain site is scientifically and technically suitable for the development of a repository. I am convinced that it does,” Abraham said in his letter to Bush.

As per the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Abraham had notified Nevada’s governor and state legislature of his decision Jan. 10, at least 30 days before he made his recommendation to Bush.

Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, along with Nevada Sens. John Ensign (R) and Harry Reid (D), have criticized the decision to use Yucca Mountain as the nation’s central repository of nuclear waste, saying the scientific research of the site is not complete enough to decide.

Gov. Guinn is expected to oppose the project. He has 60 days to file a Notice of Disapproval to Congress. Congress must overturn this notice within 90 days while in session, and can do so with a majority vote. Should Congress overturn the disapproval,  DOE then has 90 days to submit an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to dispose of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

The United States is host to the world’s largest inventory of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants and high-level radioactive waste from nuclear weapons production. A large amount of high-level waste is stored in tanks at the Hanford site in Washington state and the Savannah River site in South Carolina.

A 1987 amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act made Yucca Mountain — in Nye County, Nev., about 100 miles from Las Vegas — the only geologic disposal site under construction. Since then, DOE has been working to determine whether the site’s geology can safely contain the waste for more than 10,000 years, and whether engineering and technology can as well.

The proposed repository at Yucca Mountain would sit above the water table, and much geologic research has focused on determining whether contaminants might infiltrate saturated rocks beneath the water table and from there flow away from the site toward areas where people live.

Yucca Mountain was originally set to open in 1998. Opposition from Nevada politicians and technical difficulties pushed the opening date to 2010, and power companies have sued DOE for the cost of storing spent nuclear fuel at their sites beyond 1998.

So far, the only country to decide on a geologic repository site is Finland. The parliament there decided in December 2000 to bury spent nuclear fuel from the country’s four nuclear power plants at a site in Olkiluoto on Finland’s western shore. The government hopes to begin burial as early as 2010.

Kristina Bartlett


Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham’s statement on the Department of Energy site:

Fact sheet by the American Geological Institute Government Affairs Program:

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