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FYI Number 81: July 12, 2002

Senate Vote Allows Yucca Mountain Project to Proceed

With a Senate vote on July 9, Congress has now played its role in the approval of Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the nation's central nuclear waste repository. The Senate vote of 60-39, coupled with a House vote on May 8, effectively overrides the Nevada Governor's veto of the project, enabling the Department of Energy to submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) (see FYIs #51 and #63). Forty-five Republicans and 15 Democrats voted in support of the project. Only three Republicans, John Ensign (NV), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (CO), and Lincoln Chafee (RI), as well as Independent James Jeffords (VT), voted against it.

The Senate devoted four hours of debate to this issue. A number of Senators expressed concerns over the validity of the science supporting the Yucca Mountain site, and over the safety of transporting spent nuclear fuel to Nevada. Many, however, felt it was preferable to consolidate much of the nation's waste at one location than let it continue to accumulate at current rates at temporary storage sites around the country, or be moved to other locations without a coordinated transportation plan. Supporters emphasized that congressional override of the Nevada veto does not give the go-ahead for construction at Yucca Mountain, but only allows DOE to submit an application for a site approval license. The NRC can then take up to four years to examine the supporting documents and consider the suitability of the site before making a decision on issuing a license. Selected excerpts from the debate are provided below:

JEFF BINGAMAN (D-NM): "The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which I chair...carefully considered the arguments against the repository that have been raised by opponents of the project. I am the first to admit that not all of the questions that have been raised by the opponents have yet been adequately answered. They have not been. Many of those are questions, though, that are best answered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in its licensing procedures and nothing in the record before us justifies a decision, in my view, to terminate the program at this stage."

JOHN ENSIGN (R-NV): "Currently we have 45,000 metric tons of nuclear waste in America. By the time Yucca Mountain is supposed to start receiving waste in 2010, we will have 65,000 metric tons. When Yucca Mountain is completed in 2036, it will have 70,000 metric tons in Yucca Mountain, but because we are producing new nuclear waste every year, spread around the country still will be 47,000 metric tons, virtually the same as we have today spread out all over the country.... It is not a question of national security. It is going to be safer to have it in one site. But we are still going to have all these other sites, so national security is focused on transportation more than it is anything else."

JON KYL (R-AZ): "Senator Ensign made the point that even if we have a site such as Yucca Mountain, of course, we are still going to have the other storage sites around the country. That is very true. But I think it begs the question of what we are going to do with the majority of this waste. It is a little like saying since every Wednesday morning everybody in my area of Phoenix is going to put their garbage out, and because we keep producing garbage, we should not have a dump to where all of that garbage is taken. It is certainly true that every Wednesday everybody is going to put their garbage out. We produce more garbage, and to store it onsite is in effect storing it on the curb. That doesn't argue for the proposition that there should not be a central repository where that material is taken and disposed of in a proper way."

PETE DOMENICI (R-NM): "I am well aware that hundreds of outstanding issues have been identified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.... In many meetings with the NRC chairman, as well as many of the commissioners, I have always been impressed with their intent to deal with this...through careful study of the relevant scientific facts. The NRC has the expertise to evaluate these outstanding issues, and I am confident that they will do so with great care."

BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL (R-CO): "I don't oppose nuclear power.... My opposition to designating Yucca Mountain is deeply rooted in my strongly held belief in States' rights.... I cannot, in good conscience, vote to override a Governor's veto, when the long- term effect has the potential to destroy that State's economy.... I likened the issue to a homeowner who builds his big house on a small lot, and then realizes that he failed to build a septic tank for the house. Rather than change his design, the homeowner just puts the septic tank on his neighbor's property.... We shouldn't force Nevada to be a septic tank for other States."

RUSS FEINGOLD (D-WI): "[W]hile Yucca may be the right site, this is the wrong time to have Congress 'approve' the site while so many regulatory questions are yet unanswered.... For those of us who represent states that are grappling with nuclear waste storage questions, the short time frame mandated in law for the consideration of this resolution has made it extremely difficult to analyze its full effects on behalf of our constituents."

TOM DASCHLE (D-SD): "Let us be very clear: The claim that science supports building a national nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain is simply not true. The truth is, leading independent scientists have raised troubling questions about the scientific basis for the Department of Energy's recommendation regarding Yucca Mountain.... We are being forced to decide this issue prematurely - without sufficient scientific information - because this administration is doing the bidding of special interests that simply want to make the deadly waste they have generated somebody else's problem. That is wrong. We ought to make this decision on the basis of sound science, not pressure from the energy industry..."

HERB KOHL (D-WI): "I understand the concerns some of my colleagues have on the safety of the Yucca Mountain site. What we are asking science to do by proving that this site will be safe for tens of thousands of years is unheard of, and may well be beyond our current capabilities. But this site, on the Nevada Nuclear Test site, is certainly safer than leaving the waste at 132 sites nationwide. Sites scattered around the country that were never designed to be a permanent solution.... Burying our waste problems for future generations to deal with is not something we should be proud of. I hope the Congress and the administration will continue to fund nuclear research that will investigate ways to neutralize this waste. The repository at Yucca Mountain doesn't have to be the last word on nuclear waste, and I hope we can do better in the future."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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