A barren mountain 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas emerged Thursday as the most likely site for the nation's first high-level nuclear waste repository after House and Senate conferees agreed to limit exploratory studies to Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
If the desert site, located on the edge of the U.S. nuclear weapons proving grounds, is chosen, it would be designed to entomb up to 70,000 metric tons of deadly, high-level nuclear wastes from commercial nuclear power plants and military programs for thousands of years.
Meeting behind closed doors in Washington, the conferees ruled out two other sites from being considered again without specific congressional approval, even if Nevada's Yucca Mountain is eventually ruled out. The two sites are Hanford, Wash., where the government produces plutonium for nuclear weapons, and Deaf Smith County, Texas.
If the compromise reached by House and Senate conferees is approved by Congress, it would mark a major shift in national policy for choosing the country's first high-level nuclear waste repository. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the U.S. Department of Energy, which has responsibility for locating and operating a site, prepared to undertake simultaneous studies of all three sites--an approach that was later criticized as too expensive and politically difficult.
In Carson City, Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan on Thursday issued a blistering statement, decrying the compromise.
"This action by Congress is a legislative atrocity. It blatantly rejects the law of the land--the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982--and confirms what we have said all along: Nevada was pre-selected as the site for a high-level nuclear waste dump," Bryan said.
He warned, "This will prove to be a nuclear nightmare for the Congress, an avoidable and costly mistake that the nation's taxpayers will be forced to finance.
"Our scientific and technical concerns, although ignored on Capitol Hill, will eventually disqualify Yucca Mountain. We will continue to vigorously fight the decision on scientific, technical and legal grounds in the courts and through whatever avenues are necessary to right this injustice," Bryan said.
Any work now in progress at the Washington and Texas sites would cease 90 days after a final vote by Congress to accept the proposal.
The agreement was disclosed by Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash), who said the accord was reached late Wednesday night. Swift told The Times that he was happy that Hanford had been eliminated from consideration. But he conceded that the compromise was "a very bad . . . brutal dealing with the state of Nevada."
The compromise will be attached to the budget reconciliation act that is expected to be voted on by the House and Senate before they begin their Christmas recess.
"We (Washington state) should be happy we got off the hook, but let's don't celebrate the process. We could be on the hook (next time) when somebody decides to gang up on a small state," Swift said.
Under terms of the conference report, federal aid to Nevada for agreeing to accept a nuclear waste repository would be drastically reduced from the $100 million proposed by the Senate. Instead, Nevada would receive $10 million a year after signing an agreement to become the host state, and another $20 million a year once the site begins operations, now expected in the year 2003.
Nevada would also be given "special consideration" by the federal government when it decides where to locate future government research projects.
But, the federal aid is conditioned on Nevada waiving its right to veto the Yucca Mountain selection and giving up other federal aid that would have been forthcoming to offset the repository's impact on local roads, sewers, and schools. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, a state's governor may veto a site in his state, but both houses of Congress could override the veto.
Additionally, the compromise would "nullify" the selection of Oak Ridge, Tenn., as a location for an intermediate site for processing the nuclear waste before it is shipped to the repository.
Chris West, a Department of Energy spokesman at the Nevada Test Site, said Thursday that it would cost between $500 million and $1 billion to examine the Yucca Mountain site. The study will include drilling a 1,200-foot-deep shaft, 12-feet in diameter, as part of geologic, hydrologic and other scientific investigations.
If the repository is built, West said a location inside the mountain, about 1,000 feet from the summit and approximately level with the desert floor, is believed to be the ideal location for storing the wastes, such as spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants and radioactive material from weapons production.
At that depth, West said, the waste would be located above existing water tables and thus not subject to moisture that could corrode the nuclear waste containers.