WASHINGTON — The House Thursday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would ship thousands of tons of nuclear waste to be stored in the Nevada desert, despite opposition from the state and a veto threat by President Clinton.
The bill, which passed on a 307-120 vote, would create a temporary site for storing nuclear waste near Yucca Mountain, about 50 miles from the California border. That would provide a new home for the 33,000 tons of radioactive garbage now stored in dozens of sites around the country.
In other action Thursday, the House voted, 242 to 182, to approve a bill that would raise the fees Western ranchers pay for grazing animals on federal lands--but not by enough to satisfy environmentalists who say that ranchers would still enjoy an unwarranted federal subsidy that hurts the environment.
On the nuclear waste bill, the margin of victory was wide enough to suggest that supporters could muster the two-thirds majority needed to override an expected presidential veto. When the Senate approved a similar bill last April, it fell two votes short of the margin needed to override, but backers are hoping that a House-Senate conference committee can craft a compromise that could pick up the additional two votes.
Proponents said the measure would provide for safer storage of the hazardous byproducts of nuclear power plants--in a remote desert location rather than in the midst of populous areas, as is often now the case.
But the Clinton administration and other opponents of the bill said that nuclear wastes should not be moved until the government has completed its long-awaited study on the viability of Yucca Mountain as a permanent waste dump.
The debate has its roots in a 1982 law that ordered the Energy Department to take responsibility for storing high-level nuclear wastes generated by private utilities. In 1987, Congress identified Yucca Mountain as the permanent storage facility, pending the yet-to-be-completed Energy Department study of its viability.
In the meantime, spent nuclear fuel rods and other radioactive wastes have been stored in more than 100 interim sites in 41 states, including California. Pressure to find a central storage site has grown as the capacity of the temporary sites has begun to be strained.
Under the legislation approved by the House on Thursday, beginning in 2002, nuclear wastes would be transported to a temporary, above-ground site near Yucca Mountain until a permanent underground site there is declared viable.
Proponents of the bill criticized the Energy Department for its delays in identifying a permanent facility, saying Congress needed to step in with an interim solution.
"This bill replaces the sluggish action that has plagued DOE's nuclear waste program," said Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "Another 15 years will not pass before the federal government lives up to its responsibility of accepting spent fuel."
Opponents warned that it would be risky to transport the thousands of tons of nuclear waste to Nevada by rail or road, often through heavily populated areas.
"Forty-three states are going to have these materials riding through them," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).
Nevada's tiny congressional delegation complained bitterly about the bill, saying that creating a temporary site in Nevada would inevitably lead to its designation as the permanent site.
"The people in support of this bill are the ones who have nuclear wastes in their districts and want to get it out--get it from wherever it is into the state of Nevada," said Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.).
The legislation raising grazing fees faces an uncertain future because the Senate has no action planned on comparable legislation. Clinton administration officials have said they would recommend a veto of the House bill, in part because it would not set the fees high enough.
As approved by the House, the bill would raise the grazing fees ranchers pay from $1.35 to $1.84 per "animal unit month," the amount of land needed to feed one horse for a month. It affects some 30,000 ranchers, mostly in the West, who pay to graze animals on 250 million acres of public lands. The bill also would eliminate some of the red tape involved in using public lands.
"This bill is a significant step in the right direction," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "It offers greater stability and sound economic management for family ranchers."
Sponsors of the bill agreed to drop some of its most controversial provisions--including one that would have given ranchers more clout on local panels that make grazing policy recommendations--to broaden support for the measure.
But those changes were not enough to quiet critics who said the fee increase still would not cover the government's cost of managing the grazing program. They said the policy amounts to "corporate welfare" for big ranching companies that encourages overgrazing of federal lands.
Before approving the bill, the House narrowly rejected two amendments that would have raised the fees even higher. But it adopted, by voice vote, an amendment by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) that would set higher fees for foreign-owned corporations.