Energy Sec. Urges Yucca Mt. Nuclear Waste Site

After 12 years and $6.8 billion worth of study, the Energy Department declared the Yucca Mountain site a “scientifically sound and suitable” place to bury 77,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste. The site is 90 miles from Las Vegas.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham made the formal notification today to give the governor of Nevada 30-days warning before it goes to President Bush, as required by law.

The nuclear industry and its supporters hailed the announcement as a breakthrough. President Bush is expected to approve the recommendation and then the issue will be turned over to Capitol Hill, where Nevada representatives have vowed to put up a good fight.

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.

A law passed 20 years ago allows Nevada to veto the president’s proposal, but Congress can then override the state’s objection and force the project through.

Nevada does have a powerful ally, however. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) called the endorsement of Yucca Mountain “unfortunate and premature.”

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.) acknowledged that “it’s going to be a tough deal” to overturn the project once it gets Bush’s approval.

“Nothing has been easy on this thing,” said Reid, who has fought against Yucca Mountain for years.

Reid 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.

“This is about more than Nevada,” he insists.

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.

Energy Sec. Spencer Abraham, however, said today that he believed “the science behind this project is sound and that the site is technically suitable for this purpose.”

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.

Support PBS NewsHour: