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Congress Approves Yucca Mountain

On July 9, the Senate voted 60-39 to override Nevada's veto of the Yucca Mountain repository. On July 23, President Bush signed the Joint Resolution to override the veto, completing congressional and presidential action to support moving forward with Yucca Mountain, despite the overwhelming objections of Nevadans and their elected officials.

While supporters of Yucca Mountain in the White House, Congress, and the nuclear industry hope that Yucca Mountain will be open to receive waste by 2010, Nevadans and other people around the country vow to continue to strongly oppose the dump and waste transportation to the site. Several lawsuits are already underway and various other actions will be taken during the next few years to stop any waste from going to Nevada.

The Senate debate paralleled that in the House (see Voices, Summer 2002, page 3) on some issues, such as transportation and the importance of Yucca Mountain to nuclear power production. But the time allowed - about five hours in the Senate, versus two hours in the House - and the closer vote elicited some additional arguments.

For example, to the fact that, because of additional waste production, there will be about as much waste at power plants in 32 years when Yucca Mountain would be filled, supporters of Yucca Mountain said:

Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID): When we talk about the 70,000 ton cap at Yucca Mountain as a statutory limitation, it may be statutory but it is not physical. We do not know what the physical capability of Yucca Mountain beyond 70,000 tons would be. It could be increased over time 30 years out if, in fact, all of the geology and everything else met the standards that the scientists, through the licensing process, had established.
Sen. 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. There were some unique reasons to support Yucca Mountain:
Sen Orrin Hatch (R-UT): One of the top considerations in my decision on this issue has been the future of a proposal for a temporary storage site on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian reservation in Utah. Skull Valley has been targeted by a private consortium of nuclear electric generators as a temporary site for nuclear waste en route to Yucca Mountain, NV. I have concluded that if the plan to send high level nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain is not approved, Skull Valley will likely become the targeted alternative for permanent storage even though it is a private project only being considered as a temporary facility.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK): However, the lack of storage space for nuclear waste is now threatening the existence of nuclear power. If Yucca Mountain is not approved, nuclear powerplants will be forced to start shutting down at some point because there will be no place to store the waste. This would have profound consequences for all Oklahomans. Even though Oklahoma does not have any nuclear powerplants, if nuclear power goes off line, it would cause an economic crisis in Oklahoma. The reason is simple. If you take 20 percent of the power supply off line, other States' demands of Oklahoma's power would increase, thus creating a smaller supply of energy, and a corresponding increase in the cost of energy for Oklahomans. The days of utility rates in Oklahoma being 19 percent below the national average power rate would be over.
Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM): I have noted that alternative spent fuel management strategies should be carefully studied and evaluated. Reprocessing and transmutation could not only recover residual energy, but could also vastly reduce the toxicity of the final waste products. I am pleased that the Department plans for all spent fuel in Yucca Mountain to be fully retrievable for at least 50 years. We may find that these new approaches can even be applied to the spent fuel in Yucca Mountain and they certainly will influence any additional repositories that we may need. And the floor leader for Yucca Mountain, closed with this argument:
Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK): There are the consequences of that disapproval, and those consequences are serious. At a minimum, Congress will need to reconsider the previous sites--Hanford in Washington, Deaf Smith County, TX--giving serious consideration by using the Hanford Reservation as an interim site to meet our contractual obligations to the utilities and deal with defense in other ways. We have a significant amount of defense waste already at Hanford. Instead of moving material from Hanford, we might have to consider moving additional material there for the foreseeable future. Should Congress not act and we start this process over, my guess is we will have to go back to where we were in 1982 when there was serious consideration of granite formations in the Michigan Peninsula, and elsewhere; salt caverns in Mississippi and Louisiana; granite in Vermont, and so forth. Some have suggested that we use Federal reservations as interim sites, as has been proposed in the past. With the transportation scenario, that will be far more complex than that which has been considered to date--perhaps simply leaving the spent fuel onsite in Vermont, Illinois, Maryland, California, or elsewhere. Let there be no mistake. Because of the statutory time constraints and the directives in the law, a vote against the motion to proceed is a vote to direct the Secretary of Energy to cease all further work at Yucca Mountain and close the office until Congress decides otherwise. I hope my colleagues will look around in the Chamber because only Nevada--only Nevada--will not be in the next round.

More than two dozen senators with nuclear power plants in their states nonetheless voted against Yucca Mountain.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI): On first blush, when I was in the House of Representatives, I thought supporting a permanent nuclear storage site at Yucca Mountain was a good idea. I want the waste out of Michigan. There is no question about it. My preference, if we could say, ``Beam me up, Scottie,'' would be to move the waste out of Michigan. Unfortunately, by very close examination of the facts and information from the Department of Energy, their current documents, I have come to the conclusion that this proposal not only will maintain existing threats to the Great Lakes but will create new ones, new security risks, new environmental threats for the Great Lakes and for Michigan families. I am deeply concerned about that and frustrated because fundamentally I want the waste out of Michigan. But I do not want to create more threats in the process. … While I want the waste out of Michigan, away from its shores, We have a worst case scenario for the people of Michigan. The nuclear waste will continue to sit on the shores of the Great Lakes and also be traveling on our roads and railways--and, Heaven forbid, even barges on the Great Lakes--past our communities, neighborhoods and schools.
Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN): It is unacceptable to me as a Senator that the Department of Energy has ignored the very real and daunting task of developing a secure, comprehensive transportation plan before seeking to authorize the Yucca Mountain site. The simple fact is, the Congress should not be considering nor should the DOE have recommended authorization of the Yucca Mountain site before State and local officials were consulted and a comprehensive transportation plan has been finalized which takes into account their concerns and the people they represent. … Madam President, I believe a transportation plan for nuclear waste shipments should have a ``zero accident'' goal, but as yet the DOE doesn't even have a plan. A zero accident goal would reflect a culture in which safety is paramount and drives all aspects of the transportation system. That goal encourages a culture of safety.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT): I don't believe that the Yucca Mountain site is ready to be approved by the Congress. There is an old saying: ``underpromise, overperform.'' Unfortunately, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage plan overpromises and underperforms for the people of my State. I have studied this issue carefully, mindful of how important nuclear power is to Connecticut, and of how concerned Connecticut families are about the health and safety effects of storing nuclear waste on site. They are right to be concerned. But after many months of deliberation, I have decided that the plans aren't ready. Voting to create a waste repository at Yucca Mountain today would solve no problems and create a few new ones for the people of my state. It is not wise policy. I believe the most obvious indication of this fact is the Department of Energy's plans to apply for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Even though the Nuclear Waste Policy Act instructs the Energy Department to submit an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission 90 days after Congress acts, Secretary Abraham has stated that his agency will not submit an application until December 2004 at the earliest. Obviously, the Energy Department is not ready to make their case for this site. Why should we be endorsing the project long before the Department is ready?
Sen. Mark Dayton (D-MN): Building a safe and secure storage site at Yucca Mountain and then filling it with some 77,000 tons of nuclear waste will take the next 30 to 40 years. That is the rest of my generation's lifetime. Throughout those three and four decades, the design, the construction, the loading, the unloading, and the safe transportation of over 150,000 pounds of extremely poisonous nuclear waste must all be done perfectly--at least almost perfectly. One accident, one rupture, one attack would have devastating effects on the lives of people today and for generations to follow, as one look at a victim of the Chernobyl nuclear accident would confirm. That is the easy part, those 30 to 40 years. Now those 150,000 pounds or as much as 200,000 pounds of radioactive waste has to be stored, contained, and isolated perfectly--almost perfectly--for thousands of years. That it must be nearly perfect does not mean it is unattainable or unsustainable, but it does mean that the standards for approval must be very high. The standards of reliability, of proven technology, of public safety must be extraordinarily high. They must be met and maintained with certainty, and that certainty must be guaranteed to the American people. This project is nowhere near that standard today, not even close. That is why we should not even be considering the approval we are being required to give or to deny today. This is not what the law proscribes.
Sen. John Kerry (D-MA): Yucca Mountain was selected as the only site for purely political reasons. Over the years, the EPA has lowered standards when they discovered that Yucca Mountain could not meet the existing ones. They abandoned a collective radiation dose limit when it was discovered that the Yucca site could not meet it, and, just last year, the EPA promulgated final standards for licensing Yucca Mountain that rely on dilution of nuclear waste as opposed to containment. In other words, we changed the standards so that we did not have to change the site.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO): My opposition to designating Yucca Mountain is deeply rooted in my strongly held belief in States' rights. I believe that States should determine their own destiny--when States elect or choose to benefit from a program or policy, then those States should correspondingly assume the costs, costs that might not only be monetary…. 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. I don't want someone else's septic tank on my property. The State of Colorado doesn't want a septic tank. We shouldn't force Nevada to be a septic tank for other States.
Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT): I understand that Yucca Mountain, if approved today as I assume it will be, will take some of the waste, both from my State and others. That is of course helpful, as far as it goes. But Americans should not be misled into believing that the Yucca Mountain site will solve America's waste problem. I would be derelict in my duties were I not to dispel this motion. I do so with my vote today in opposition to the Yucca Mountain proposal, under its current limitations. I do so not because I don't recognize that Yucca has the potential to provide some relief to storage concerns at Vermont Yankee and other sites. I take this vote instead because we cannot allow it to be viewed as the panacea to our nuclear waste storage problem. We must continue to work with the nuclear industry and with the administration to find a safe and comprehensive solution to this extremely vexing problem. We cannot rest on our laurels for the next 10, 20 or 30 years, only to wake up to expanded nuclear waste piles with nowhere to go.

Although it will be difficult to overturn the decisions of the President and Congress, hear Nevada's senators.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV): The big lie has been the fact that they say they are going to have only one repository. They are still going to have 131 repositories. That is the way it is going to be. This is a big lie they have perpetuated for many years now, and it is absolutely false that they are going to have one repository. They will continue to have 131, plus the mobile Chernobyls that will be all over America on trucks, barges, and trains.
Sen. John Ensign (R-NV): When it comes to Yucca Mountain, we intend to fight. Nevada's other motto is ``all for our country.'' This is proudly displayed on our State seal. Nevadans have always been for our country. The ore taken from Nevada's Comstock load financed the means by which we preserved the Union during the Civil War, and Nevada has hosted aboveground nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site, the result being a weapon of such mass destruction that it swiftly brought the end to the World War II conflict. Too many innocent people in Nevada and Utah died from horrible cancer-related disease from the radiation fallout. So when it comes to our national defense, Nevadans have always proudly stood tall for our country. Yucca Mountain is not needed for our defense and goes way beyond patriotic duty.



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