Web Extra  Thursday, July 11

Senate votes in favor of Yucca Mountain

On Tuesday, the Senate voted across party lines (60 to 39) to approve Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the nation's nuclear waste repository. This move ends the legislative battle that has unfolded since President Bush gave his approval on the project in February (Geotimes Web Extra, Feb. 16).

Since that time, the issue was brought before the House and Senate for further examination after Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn's (R) notice of disapproval of the proposal under the provisions of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. A notice of disapproval can be overridden by a simple majority in both houses of Congress. In May, the House overrode the Governor's veto by an overwhelming majority (306 to 117). Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.) led an active effort to counter the plan in the Senate, where opponents of the project had typically garnered more support. However, this week, the Senate overrode Gov. Guinn's disapproval. Governor Guinn has pledged to bring the issue to federal court where a number of other lawsuits regarding many aspects of the project are pending.

The Yucca Mountain project has been under scrutiny for almost a quarter century since 1978 when the first test hole was dug. Debate has focused on the geological — specifically hydrologic and seismic — and technological safety of storing nuclear waste in this repository for the next 10,000 years which is the timespan for regulatory consideration required by law (Geotimes, March 2002).

The recent war on terrorism is highlighting the safety issue further with politicians arguing the pros and cons of having a single nuclear repository rather than the 131 aboveground storage facilities in use presently. Sens. Reid and Ensign stressed that terrorists can attack the waste during transportation from current facilities to Yucca Mountain. Others view Yucca Mountain as a precaution against terrorist threat. In a July 9 statement reported by the Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said, "America's national, energy and homeland security, as well as environment protection, is well served by siting a single nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Congress has recognized that the Government has safely transported nuclear waste for more that 30 years and, in doing so, has rejected the transportation scare tactics employed by those opposed to Yucca Mountain."

Although the legislative issue has been laid to rest for the time being, the project itself is nowhere close to completion. DOE, the primary body in charge of the project, must now acquire a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. By law, application for the license must be within 60 days after congressional approval, but DOE will file for the license in 2004, after further research and planning on the project. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in turn will take several additional years approving the license, pushing the actual date of completion even further into the future.

DOE hopes to have the repository open by 2010, but critics suggest that this schedule might be too optimistic. In the meantime, though the legislative decision is settled, the problems and controversies that plague the project still remain along with 40,000 tons of nuclear waste that continue to be stored in aboveground sites across the country and the estimated 2,000 tons added each year to this store.

Salma Monani


Secretary of Energy Spencer Abrahamís statement on the Department of Energy website.
Fact sheet by the American Geological Institute Government Affairs Program

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