Nuclear, Reactors

Senate Approves Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Site

Issue 8 and Volume 106.

By a vote of 60 to 39, the U.S. Senate has approved Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the final storage site for radioactive fuel rods that have been accumulating at the nation’s nuclear reactors and bomb production facilities for more than 50 years. The vote culminated an intensely fought 20-year political struggle that has pitted the nuclear industry against anti-nuclear activists, the Nevada-based gambling industry and the Nevada state government.

The Bush administration set the congressional action in motion in February, when Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced he had concluded that Yucca Mountain was suitable for the waste burial ground. With the site already approved by the Bush administration and the House, the Senate vote completes the selection of Yucca Mountain as the site for the waste depository.

Plans for the storage site, which would not begin accepting shipments until at least 2010, call for placing the fuel rods deep within a desert mountain 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas and adjacent to a former atomic testing ground. The first shipments from 39 states are due to begin arriving in 2010. The site is being designed to house 77,000 tons of spent commercial, industrial and military nuclear fuel.

The depository’s approval carries special significance for Illinois, which has more commercial nuclear power plants than any other state. Both Illinois senators voted in favor of the waste site. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) announced on the day of the vote that he would reverse his position after voting twice before to block the storage site at Yucca Mountain. At the beginning of the year, more than 7,100 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods were stored at eight sites spread around the state.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must still license the site before it can open. The NRC last year identified more than 200 additional scientific issues the Department of Energy must address in its license application after it received preliminary studies on the site. Opponents vowed a campaign to hinder development of the site through court and regulatory challenges as well as additional legislative maneuvering.

Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, whose veto of the project was overruled by the Senate in July and by the House in May, promised to continue the challenge in the courts, where the state has five lawsuits pending. Four of Nevada’s lawsuits challenge licensing standards or the criteria on which President Bush and the Energy Department decided in favor of Yucca Mountain. The fifth seeks to cut off water to the site.

“They’ve got to win them all,” said Bob Loux, director of the state Nuclear Projects Office. “We only have to win one. Any of them are potentially fatal to the project.”