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Bush Approves Yucca Nuclear Waste Site

Nevada is expected to exercise its veto rights under a law passed 20 years ago, but Congress can then override the state’s objection and force the project through.

Although Nevada representatives have vowed to put up a good fight, the measure is expected to pass in both houses.

In a letter to the president delivered Thursday night, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said 12 years and $6.8 billion worth of study shows the Yucca Mountain site is a “scientifically sound and suitable” place to bury 77,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

“I could not and would not recommend the Yucca Mountain site without having first determined that [it will] … protect the health and safety of the public,” Abraham said.

Abraham first announced his recommendation last month to give Nevada 30 days of advanced warning, as required by law.

On Friday, President Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, notified key members of Congress of the president’s approval.

Opponents to the endorsement had already begun to mobilize. Last week, Nevada Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn asked President Bush not to act hastily. Guinn and Nevada officials maintain that the safety of the site has not been assured.

Protestors rallied in Washington Thursday.

“I totally oppose this. I do not want anything that could affect the health of my wife and two kids coming into my state,” said Nevada native Hugh Jackson as he and several dozen protesters chanted “Nuclear wastes, no way!” outside the Capitol. More demonstrations are planned.

No state wants to store the nuclear waste and Nevada has argued that since it has no nuclear power plants, it should not have to store the potentially dangerous byproduct of nuclear fission.

The state has powerful allies in the Democratic leadership. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) called last month’s endorsement of Yucca Mountain “unfortunate and premature.”

House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt released a statement Friday saying there “is not nearly enough scientific knowledge to reach a conclusion about the safety of transporting, then dumping, thousands of tons of radioactive, nuclear waste in the state of Nevada. The General Accounting Office, a non-partisan body created by Congress, said as much two months ago.”

Gephardt said he would work with other Democratic Leaders in the House and the Senate to overturn the administration’s decision “and to safeguard the health of the people of Nevada.”

However many lawmakers joined the nuclear industry in hailing the decision as a major step towards solving a long-standing problem.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), whose state has the largest number of nuclear reactors, praised the decision, saying it “will finally enable us to take a necessary step forward” on addressing the waste problem.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hopes to dissuade senators by stressing that a single national storage site will mean thousands of trucks and trains will carry hazardous materials through heavily populated areas in 45 states.

Reid’s argument, however, may not convince many lawmakers who would like to get rid of the waste that is currently piling up in their own states.

Reid’s Republican colleague from Nevada, Sen. John Ensign, said he would use “every argument — scientific, fiscal argument as well as every political argument with the White House.”

He warned that Republicans could lose two of Nevada’s seats in the House of Representatives if the deal goes through, thus endangering the GOP’s narrow majority in the lower chamber.

The search for a place to store nuclear waste began in 1982, when Congress promised to have a repository up and running by January 1998. The Energy Department signed contracts with the reactor owners promising to find a solution to the storage problem, in exchange for payments based on the kilowatts generated. The utilities, which paid into the system, but are stuck with the waste, are now suing for breach of contract.

The government decided 15 years ago to study Yucca Mountain, a site adjacent to a former nuclear test site. The research had to show that the storage facility will not leak significantly for 10,000 years. Two other potential sites in Washington state and Texas were eliminated in both the House and Senate.

Opponents say chemical conditions at Yucca Mountain are certain to cause corrosion in the containers and to spread the radioactive materials. Scientists agree materials could leak into water that flows inside the mountain and could contaminate water beneath the surrounding desert.

A broad coalition of industry groups has been pushing for approval of the Yucca Mountain waste site; environmentalists and anti-nuclear groups have vowed to fight it.

Currently, more than 40,000 tons of highly radioactive reactor waste is stored at 103 nuclear power plants in 31 states. The amount increases by 2,000 tons every year.

If approved, waste could be stored in the mountain as early as 2010. If Nevada suceeds in blocking the administration’s plan, Congress will have to start from scratch in its search for a way to deal with the nuclear waste issue.

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