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Senate OKs Nevada Nuclear Waste Site

Energy: As Congress grants final approval for the much-disputed plan, opponents vow to sue.

July 10, 2002|NICK ANDERSON and TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's plan to open the first national nuclear-waste burial ground at Nevada's Yucca Mountain won final congressional approval Tuesday, a landmark action that could open the door to a new era of growth for the long-stalled nuclear energy industry.

A Republican-led majority rammed the plan through the Senate after only a few hours of debate, despite fierce opposition from Nevadans, the Democratic leadership and many environmentalists. The Senate's approval, on a voice vote, came after the plan survived a decisive 60-39 roll call on a key procedural question. The House approved the plan in May, 306 to 117.

Advocates contended that government studies costing billions of dollars had found the site suitable for storing high-level radioactive waste for up to 10,000 years.

But critics said the administration failed to prove that the deadly material could be safely stored beneath the volcanic ridge just 90 miles northwest of fast-growing Las Vegas--and roughly 20 miles from the California border. They also claimed that shipping the waste from states around the country, along the nation's highways and rails, would invite terrorist attacks or risk a catastrophic accident.

The vote was a major victory for both the nuclear industry, which has been lobbying for a waste storage site for more than 20 years, and President Bush, who has made expansion of nuclear power a prime goal of his energy policy. Employees at an Energy Department office in Las Vegas erupted in whoops and cheers after the vote.

Bush endorsed the Yucca Mountain plan in February, reversing the Clinton administration's course of delay. Bush's predecessor, in fact, vetoed a plan for storing waste at Yucca Mountain two years ago.

With Tuesday's action, Nevada's attempt to block the new federal plan through a gubernatorial veto in April was overridden. The administration now can apply for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build the facility. It would open, if all goes as planned, in roughly a decade.

The White House had no immediate comment on the Senate action. Earlier, the administration released a statement urging approval of the plan as "important to a number of critical national interests, including national security, energy security, homeland security and protection of the environment."

But opponents still plan to fight every step of the way--in government agencies and in court.

"The U.S. Senate vote today is the beginning of Nevada's legal and regulatory fight to stop the Yucca Mountain project," said Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican. Although the congressional action does not guarantee that nuclear waste will be stored at Yucca Mountain, it shifted the debate significantly. Now the government and the nuclear industry can plan on the assumption that a permanent repository for up to 77,000 tons of radioactive waste is moving forward.

Had Congress failed to act, the plan--in the works since 1982--would have died.

That outcome would have been devastating to an industry that fell from public favor after a dangerous accident in 1979 at a power plant in Pennsylvania. The Three Mile Island incident helped spur the cancellation of plans for many new nuclear power plants; others have since been closed.

Although nuclear power supplies about 20% of all electricity generated in the United States through reactors at 103 plants, the Bush administration noted last year in its energy policy report that no new plant construction has been successfully ordered since 1973.

Opponents of nuclear power have long argued that plans for expanding nuclear plants should be shelved because there is no place to put radioactive waste. Now the industry can parry that argument.

"This is another piece of evidence that the nuclear industry is alive and well and likely to prosper in years to come," said Jay Silberg, an attorney in Washington for several nuclear utilities.

Lawmakers who back nuclear power said Congress must support a waste-storage plan if the industry is to survive. Currently, spent fuel rods are accumulating at 131 sites in 39 states.

"I know how hard it is to explain to people this can be done in a safe and responsible way," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the minority leader, whose own state dodged designation as a potential waste-storage site in the 1980s. "But we have to deal with it. And if we don't take this action, we don't deal with it, then we're going to have to shut down this source of energy in the country, slowly but surely. And I think that would be a mistake."

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) denounced the plan, saying nuclear waste will continue to pile up around the country even if the Yucca project goes forward. Waving a government document angrily on the Senate floor, he said: "This piece of trash--that's what it is--is typical of what the Department of Energy has done. It's one big lie after one big lie."

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