Congress Gives Yucca Mountain Green Light as Nuclear Waste Dump

Yesterday, despite the opposition of the state of Nevada, the Senate, by a vote of 60-39, approved a resolution (Senate Resolution 34) making Nevada's Yucca Mountain the future repository of some 77,000 tons of nuclear waste, most of it coming from nuclear power plants and U.S. defense facilities in other states.

The 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act mandated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the only site for consideration as a permanent geologic repository for high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

Now that the Senate has given the green light, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to spend the next several years reviewing scientific and health data about the Yucca Mountain site, which is about 90 miles from Las Vegas, and will be responsible for issuing (or not issuing) a construction license and a permit to allow the facility to accept waste. The target opening date for the facility is 2010.

Not surprisingly, Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and Sen. John Ensign (R., Nev.) voted against the measure, as did Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.). Also not surprisingly, many of the senators who voted for the measure have nuclear energy facilities in their states, which is why Ensign believes he and Reid had difficulty getting the votes needed to defeat the proposal. "NIMBY-Not in my backyard," said Ensign.

Not everyone who voted against the plan has a nuclear power plant in his or her state. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, which does not have a nuclear power plant, said that it was "not realistic" to look for another site and while there are questions that need to be answered about the Yucca Mountain proposal, "we're not likely to find a better site next time." According to Bingaman, the federal government has already spent $4.5 billion and 24 years studying Yucca Mountain.

Reid vowed the fight against the Yucca Mountain depository "is not over," while Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn vowed to pursue the five lawsuits the state has filed against the project.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham praised the Senate for its support of the administration's recommendation that Yucca Mountain be considered for development as America's first nuclear waste repository.

"After more than 20 years of debate, the Senate has rightfully chosen to allow the process of developing a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain to proceed to the next step, recognizing that the independent experts at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) deserve the right to review the 24 years of scientific study of Yucca Mountain and to consider the site for a license," Abraham said yesterday.

The Nevada lawsuits claim the Department of Energy failed to develop a clear transportation plan (much of the waste will be shipped cross-country from nuclear power plants in the northeast and south) to the use of man-made barriers to contain waste and the Environmental Protection Agency's health standard.

Citizens are getting into the act: A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Nevada by Jonathan Galaviz (a Hispanic-American, filing pro se). The lawsuit contends (among other constitutional arguments) that high-level nuclear waste shipments would inflict great damage on low-income white and minority communities nationwide. It further states that the DOE, with the approval of President George Bush and Energy Secretary Abraham, intentionally selected those routes in order to minimize political opposition to the project.

"Any U.S. senator voting in favor of [the Yucca Mountain project] will inflict great harm on African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American and Native-American communities nationwide. High-level nuclear waste shipments will not be transported through Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif., or in the posh areas of Georgetown in Washington D.C., but there will be thousands shipped by truck and rail through predominately low-income communities for the next 40 years," says Galaviz.

According to him, high-level nuclear waste shipment routes have been intentionally selected to travel through minority communities in Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Denver, Chicago, Houston, Miami, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., in order to reduce majority opposition to the project.

Joe F. Colvin, president and CEO of the nuclear energy industry's lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, is obviously gratified by the Senate vote. "This is a great day for U.S. energy security and common-sense environmentalism," he comments. "Consolidating used nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants and high-level radioactive waste from U.S. defense programs is good for U.S. energy security, national security and our environment."

He insists his industry "fully realizes" that safe transportation of used nuclear fuel and defense waste is critical to the success of the Yucca Mountain program. In the past 38 years, says Colvin, more than 3,000 shipments have been made without a single incidence of a release of radiation.

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