Abraham selects Yucca Mountain; political legal battles begin

Published March 1, 2002

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced on January 11 he will officially recommend Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the permanent storage site for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.

“The science behind this project is sound, and the site is technically suitable for this purpose,” said Abraham. “There are compelling national interests that require us to complete the siting process and move forward with the development of a repository, as Congress mandated almost 20 years ago.”

In making his announcement, Abraham gave Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn the 30 days’ advance notice required before the Energy Secretary officially recommends the site to President Bush.

If, as expected, Bush agrees with the energy secretary’s favorable assessment of Yucca Mountain, Bush will then recommend the site to Congress. Nevada is expected to exercise a veto over the site selection, which will prompt Congress to take a simple-majority vote in the House and Senate to either uphold or overrule Nevada’s veto.

The Yucca Mountain site is expected to be approved by the Republican-controlled House, but confirmation in the Senate is less certain. Both advocates and opponents of the site claim they will prevail in the Senate vote.

Guinn promised that even if the site is approved by the House and Senate, he will file a number of lawsuits to try to block the proposal.

“I explained to him (Mr. Abraham) we will fight it in the Congress, in the Oval Office, in every regulatory body we can,” said Guinn. “The fight is far from over.”

“I told the secretary that I think this decision stinks,” Guinn added. “The whole process stinks and we’ll see him in court.”

A dozen years behind schedule

The plan to consolidate the nation’s nuclear waste in a single central storage facility is already significantly behind schedule. Legal and scientific challenges have hampered the search for a permanent storage site since Congress first authorized the effort in 1982. According to the 1982 legislation, the Energy Department was supposed to begin accepting nuclear waste from various utility companies in 1998.

By formally recommending the Yucca Mountain site, Abraham is hoping to make the facility operational by 2010.

While the political and legal processes drag on, individual power companies across the country are temporarily storing spent fuel in their local facilities. Many of these companies are running out of space to store the waste. Moreover, temporary storage raises numerous safety concerns, which have increased since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) noted the federal government has already spent $7 billion researching and preparing the Yucca Mountain site. Moreover, Americans have been paying an electric utility tax since 1983 to build the facility “with little to show for it.”

According to Hastert, the opening of the Yucca Mountain facility has been obstructed by “left-wing political grandstanding” that has “prevented the government from moving forward on a centralized, safe storage location for nuclear waste sooner than today.”

Added Hastert, “Secretary Abraham’s sound decision will finally enable us to take a necessary step forward and get something back on the billions of dollars invested over the years for our families, our environment, and the future use of a safe and viable energy source.”

Legal wrangling ahead

In addition to political lobbying in the House and Senate, Yucca Mountain opponents are mounting legal challenges to the plan.

Late last year, the Department of Energy (DOE) changed its rules for assessing the safety of a nuclear waste storage site. The new rules, effective December 14, allow the Department to meet EPA safety requirements through a combination of natural and man-made barriers. Prior to December 14, the DOE was committed to demonstrating that natural barriers alone could provide the protections necessary to meet EPA’s safety requirements.

Nevada officials, who have consistently opposed the designation of any nuclear storage facility in their state, argue that when Congress in 1982 authorized the search for a permanent nuclear waste storage facility, it explicitly contemplated that geological features constitute the primary defense against radiation leakage.

“The notion that geological features must be the primary form of containment is … explicitly required” by the 1982 legislation, argued Guinn. He further asserted that under the DOE’s new rules, an allegedly viable storage site could be constructed “on the shores of Lake Tahoe” or in a Washington, DC federal office building.

“The Department should not be evaluating the suitability of the site based on rules that were transparently reconfigured at the eleventh hour because DOE could not meet the statutory demands of Congress nor the scientific recommendations” of other agencies, Guinn insisted.

Countered DOE spokesperson Joe Davis, “We’re not relying specifically on engineered barriers to meet the regulations. We are looking at the scientific evidence of both the geological and engineered barriers together to determine the site’s suitability. One doesn’t outweigh the other. They both work hand in hand.”

No alternative in sight

Few people recommend that spent nuclear fuel be permanently stored in facilities scattered around the country. However, if the Yucca Mountain site is not approved for permanent storage, it will likely be decades, if ever, before an alternate site is approved.

Since 1983, when Yucca Mountain was identified as the best possible location for such a storage site, the government has been studying no other locations.

Proponents of the site hope bipartisanship will prevail over political wrangling. The bipartisan Yucca Mountain Initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, praised Abraham’s selection of the Yucca Mountain site.

Former Republican Governor John Sununu of New Hampshire and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro of New York, on behalf of the Yucca Mountain Initiative, issued a joint statement calling Abraham’s action “an appropriate response to issues emanating in light of September 11.”

“Today’s action by the secretary triggers a decisive step forward towards meeting our generation’s responsibility for the stewardship of used nuclear fuel and defense waste,” the statement said.