Senate approves Yucca Mountain storage site

Published September 1, 2002

The U.S. Senate on July 9 sealed the selection of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the single permanent storage place for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. The 60-39 vote—barely sufficient to override Nevada’s veto of the facility—ended a long political odyssey of near-success for Yucca supporters marred by frequent setbacks.

A long political process

Congress initially approved the Yucca Mountain storage site in early 2000, but its vote was overridden by then-President Bill Clinton’s veto. In May 2000 the Senate attempted to override the Clinton veto, but its 64-35 vote fell just short.

Soon after President George W. Bush took office, Yucca Mountain again appeared doomed when Democrats gained control of the Senate. Said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota.), “The Yucca Mountain issue is dead … as long as we’re in the majority, it’s dead.”

But Daschle’s political capital proved insufficient to keep Congressional Democrats from voting for the Yucca site. Bush resuscitated the process on February 15, 2002, when he formally endorsed Yucca Mountain. Nevada Governor Kerry Guinn exercised his right to veto the site, which sent the measure back to Congress.

The Yucca site sailed through the House of Representatives on May 8, prevailing on a bipartisan 306-117 vote. That set up the final showdown in the Senate.

Senate trio fails to rally opposition

Senators Daschle, Harry Reid (D-Nevada), and John Ensign (R-Nevada) spearheaded the effort to defeat the Yucca Mountain measure and, if at all possible, keep it from even reaching a vote.

Initially, the trio attempted to argue the facility would be unsafe. That tactic was largely preempted by a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study that determined Yucca Mountain was a safe and proper site for the storage of nuclear waste.

The NAS report, issued June 6, 2001, concluded underground storage is safe, and also that governments must act quickly to alleviate the accumulating waste in above-ground temporary storage facilities. The NAS scientists asserted the problem of nuclear waste disposal is purely political, and that waste disposal at an underground facility is completely safe from a scientific standpoint.

The NAS report came on the heels of a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) study similarly finding that nuclear waste could be safely stored at the Yucca Mountain site. Summarized Joe Colvin, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, “This (DOE) report on years of scientific study offers further support of the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository for used fuel from the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants and high-level radioactive waste from the nation’s defense programs. The report clearly demonstrates there is ample scientific basis for making a decision to dispose of used nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain.”

Yucca proponents noted safety rules adopted by the Bush administration are virtually identical to rules proposed by the Clinton administration.

Next, the trio of Senators argued Yucca Mountain would be an inviting target for terrorists. “This is not the Nuclear Waste Disposal Act, this is the Terrorist Facilitation Act,” argued Ensign.

That argument also went nowhere, as a majority of Congressmen recognized that one central, heavily protected facility would better deter terrorists than 70 or so temporary storage facilities scattered haphazardly across the country.

Indeed, former Republican Governor John Sununu of New Hampshire and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro of New York issued a joint statement calling the selection of one central storage facility at Yucca Mountain “an appropriate response to issues emanating in light of September 11.”

Finally, the Yucca opponents asserted their opposition to the Nevada site was motivated by concerns that the transportation of nuclear waste created undue risks in the other 49 states. “Mobile Chernobyl will be all over America,” asserted Reid.

That argument also failed.

“I would much rather have [the waste] pass through than stop and stay [in an unsuitable facility]” said Senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah).

“We cannot afford the current shotgun approach of storing waste at sites scattered across the country,” agreed Senator Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska). “Now more than ever, we need a safe, central secure facility for our nation’s nuclear waste. Now more than ever, we need Yucca Mountain.”

Legal battles to follow

Despite the conclusion of the political process, Yucca opponents vow to fight the facility in the courts.

As an initial tactic, they plan to argue Congress did not follow proper procedure in its consideration of and subsequent votes regarding the Yucca site.

Yucca opponents also plan to argue the Department of Energy failed to abide by important safety rules. They point out the Department of Energy changed its safety assessment rules, effective December 14, to allow the Department to meet EPA safety requirements through a combination of natural and man-made barriers. Prior to the December 14 change, the DOE was committed to demonstrating that natural barriers alone would be sufficient 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 would 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 added.

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.”

Guinn promised he will file a number of lawsuits to block the proposal.

“We will fight it in the Congress, in the Oval Office, in every regulatory body we can,” he said. “The fight is far from over.”

Already 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 nuclear waste storage site since Congress first authorized the search in 1982. According to that legislation, the Energy Department was supposed to begin accepting nuclear waste from utility companies in 1998.

By making a final selection of the Yucca Mountain site, proponents in Congress are hoping to make the facility operational by 2010.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert 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.”