Nuclear, Reactors, Waste Management & Decommissioning

House passes Yucca Mountain override; debate shifts to Senate

By Sylvie Dale, Online Editor

May 9, 2002 — The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to override Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn’s veto on the use of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste storage site for 77,000 tons of material.

With a vote of 306-117, the House exceeded the simple majority it needed to override Gov. Guinn’s veto of the controversial $58 billion project. The focus now will shift to the Senate, where the debate is expected to be closer.

If the Senate has enough votes to also override the veto, the Department of Energy will be able to apply for a license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the permanent storage of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel, pursuant to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.

After $7 billion has been spent on site studies, the project proponents have said that enough study has been done to move forward, National Public Radio reported. But a recent congressional General Accounting Office report lists 293 unanswered safety and technical questions about the plan.

Gov. Guinn has defied the push towards use of the site, focusing on groundwater flow and the security of the transportation routes by which the waste would be moved to the site, located 90 miles from Las Vegas.

Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham has said that all questions would be answered before the NRC issues a license.

If the project goes forward, more than 108,000 shipments of waste will cross highways and railroads in 43 states for 38 years, Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada said during arguments before the vote.

Berkley said there are some future issues that the plan won’t resolve. “First of all, contrary to what the nuclear industry would have us believe, a central repository would not mean that reactor sites around the country would be cleaned out,” Berkley said.

“According to the government’s shipping plans, in the year 2036, when Yucca Mountain is filled to capacity, there will still be 44,000 tons of nuclear waste stored at reactor sites. That means that after 38 years of shipping high level waste through our cities and towns we will have reduced on-site storage of nuclear waste by a mere 4%.

“These figures also pre-date proposals to increase our dependence on nuclear power, so this is a conservative estimate of how much waste would still be stored at reactor sites by mid-Century. Why would we want to ship nuclear waste across 45 states for 38 years if it makes no difference in the amount of waste stored on-site throughout the country?”

But Secretary Abraham in a separate statement urged the Senate to move forward with the project. “America’s national, energy and homeland security, as well as environmental protection is well served by siting a single nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, rather than having nuclear waste stranded in temporary storage locations at 131 sites in 39 states,” Abraham said.

“Nothing that the opponents of Yucca Mountain have presented, including baseless allegations regarding the transportation of nuclear waste, rises to the burden of proof that requires Congress to stop the process before a thorough review of the site is conducted by the independent experts at the NRC,” he said.

The federal government has safely transported nuclear waste for more than 30 years and more than 1.6 million miles without ever having a harmful release of radiation. Currently, more than 161 million people live within 75 miles of a nuclear waste storage site.

The Senate is expected to vote on the issue by July 1.