Senate OKs Dump
Steve Tetreault Stephens, Washington Bureau, July 10, 2002
WASHINGTON -- Fifteen years after Congress passed the "Screw Nevada Bill," the deed was done Tuesday as senators voted decisively to store the nation's deadliest nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.
On a key procedural vote, senators voted 60-39 in favor of the Yucca Mountain Project, all but ending more than two decades of legislative fighting.
The site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been the only place under consideration since 1987, when Congress passed legislation that bitter Nevada officials said all but ensured the state would become the nation's nuclear dumping ground.
Nevada's senators had lobbied their colleagues incessantly in the weeks preceding Tuesday's vote.
"It feels like somebody has punched me about 100 times in the gut," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.
Yucca Mountain supporters were in a decidedly sunnier mood.
"What happened today was good for this country," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said. "This was an important vote for our nation's energy security and national security."
Gov. Kenny Guinn expressed disappointment, but vowed the state will mount a spirited legal battle.
"The U.S. Senate vote today is the beginning of Nevada's legal and regulatory fight to stop the Yucca Mountain Project," Guinn said. "Now the process moves to the federal courts, where the playing field is level and Nevada's factual, scientific arguments will be heard by impartial judges."
Guinn's likely opponent in the fall election, state Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, said the vote means Nevada should start negotiating for benefits to hold the repository.
"We must consider seriously changing our position and trying to get something out of a bad situation," said Neal, a retired Nevada Test Site worker who is running for governor. "We must get benefits."
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that is not in the cards.
"There's no deal to be made," said Reid, for whom Yucca Mountain has been a defining issue since he was elected to the Senate in 1986.
Instead, Reid, the Senate's majority whip, said he will continue to keep the heat on the federal government through his leadership post and chairmanships of two key energy subcommittees.
"I thought I'd feel worse than I do," the former amateur boxer said after Tuesday's vote. "I feel kind of invigorated. I feel in my heart I did the right thing, and I'm energized to keep fighting. They may have knocked me down, but I'm not out."
Tuesday's showdown capped a series of events precipitated by President Bush's February recommendation that 77,000 tons of the nation's deadliest nuclear waste be stored at Yucca Mountain.
In April, Guinn vetoed that recommendation. In May, the House voted 306-117 to override the veto. Senators followed in kind Tuesday.
Voting to store waste at Yucca Mountain were 45 Republicans and 15 Democrats. Two Republicans joined Ensign, 35 Democrats, and Vermont independent Sen. James Jeffords in opposition. The other Republicans were Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., recovering from surgery, did not vote. The White House and Republican leaders did not require him to show up, an early indication they were confident of prevailing.
Jeffords voted against the repository after intense lobbying by Reid and environmental groups. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, however, voted for Yucca Mountain.
In the seven states, including Vermont, where Nevada spent tens of thousands of dollars for television advertisements, three of 14 senators took Nevada's side.
Abraham said he hopes the Senate vote will mark a clearer path for the Yucca program, which has been dogged by escalating costs and missed deadlines. The Yucca resolution will be sent to President Bush for his signature.
The Energy Department must submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before it can build the repository. The Energy Department says the earliest waste could be shipped to the site is 2010.
"Nevada has had its day," Abraham said. "Nevada had a chance to veto this, which it did. Nevada had a chance in the House and the Senate to make its case, which it certainly has. My hope is that after this process a majority will support the (spending) levels we need to finish the job."
The showdown brought to an end frantic maneuvering by Nevada's congressional delegation to kill or stall the repository in the face of insurmountable opposition from the Bush administration, the nuclear power industry and the national business community.
Reid and Ensign said their lobbying was picking up support in recent weeks. But they said they quickly lost ground when the Bush administration began a serious lobbying campaign of its own in the past 10 days.
"I don't know if there was anything we could have done differently," Ensign said. "If anything, I learned you can't beat the White House, and the White House weighed in very heavily."
Senators engaged in nearly five hours of debate, nearly all of it echoing arguments each side raised over the past year.
For instance, as he argued against the transportation of nuclear waste, Ensign displayed a photograph of a missile punching a hole in a nuclear waste cask.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said opponents' focus on transportation was a scare tactic, adding that federal agencies will develop secure routes to Nevada.
Ensign also argued that senators were setting a disastrous precedent by calling for a vote on Yucca Mountain over the objections of Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
"This vote will make a loud noise and will change the way the Senate operates," he said.
Opponents disagreed, saying the 1982 federal nuclear waste law allowed for the process. "Nobody is trying to undermine the Senate leaders," said Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Daschle said senators were being pushed to an early verdict.
"We're being forced to decide this issue prematurely without sufficient scientific information," he said. "The administration is doing the bidding of an industry that wants to make deadly nuclear waste somebody else's problem.
"I think we'll regret this someday," Daschle said.
But Lott said senators had no choice under federal law but to act now or risk having to start from scratch to find a resting place for the nation's nuclear waste.
"This is not something we're rushing into," he said. "This has been 20 years in the making. With all the time, all the effort, all the science put into this, I don't know what we'd do" if the Yucca Mountain Project were killed.
Yucca Mountain has been the only site under consideration for storage of the nation's nuclear waste since 1987, when Congress passed legislation that Silver State officials dubbed the "Screw Nevada Bill." Before that, sites in Washington and Texas had been under consideration.
Near the close of Tuesday's debate, Reid railed against nuclear power companies, saying "big money" had colored the issue. He motioned up to the visitors' gallery, in which industry lobbyists and executives were ensconced.
"All you people here, bill your hours, because you're perpetrating a travesty on our country," he said.
Alluding to a Robert Frost poem, Reid urged senators to "take the road less traveled" and surprise everyone by shelving the project.
Moments later, during the final voice vote in which senators were asked to approve the Yucca Mountain Project, Reid bowed his head and muttered, "No."
Review-Journal staff writers Jane Ann Morrison and Ed Vogel contributed to this report.
Approves Storage Of Nuclear Waste In Nevada
Eric Pianin and Helen Dewar,Washington Post, July 10, 2002; Page A01
The Senate approved a Bush administration plan yesterday to store much of the nation's nuclear waste beneath Nevada's Yucca Mountain, giving final legislative approval to a project that has been debated for nearly a quarter-century.
Despite strong objections from Nevada officials, gambling industry leaders and environmentalists, the Senate voted 60 to 39 to affirm President Bush's finding that the $58 billion project is "scientifically sound and suitable" and would enhance protection against terrorist attacks by consolidating the radioactive waste underground.
Fifteen Democrats joined 45 Republicans in approving the project, underscoring widespread concern over management of growing nuclear waste piles at power plants in 39 states. Maryland Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes voted against the project while Virginia Republicans John W. Warner and George Allen voted for it. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) did not vote.
In the late 1980s, Congress authorized the Energy Department to consider Yucca Mountain as the sole site to collect and bury nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for thousands of years. It gave Nevada veto rights, however. Yesterday, the Senate joined the House in overriding Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn's objection to Bush's Feb. 15 decision endorsing the plan to bury as much as 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste in desert tunnels 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The vote was a victory for Bush and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who said the project was critical to their efforts to expand domestic energy production. It dealt a blow to Majority Whip Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who led the effort to sidetrack the project.
The Senate "cast a very vital and important vote in favor of America's national security, in favor of America's energy security and in favor of this country's environmental security," Abraham said.
The vote ended an intense lobbying effort by the nuclear energy industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent about $72 million since 1994 lobbying for the project. Senate supporters said the vote will help ensure the future of the U.S. nuclear power industry by keeping it from "choking on its own waste," as Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) put it.
Reid, Ensign and other opponents called the administration plan "the big lie," a project riddled with technical and transportation problems that will not solve the waste storage problem because spent fuel will continue to pile up at nuclear power plants around the country even with a centralized repository.
"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 someone else's problem," said Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
While the legislative issue appears settled, the Energy Department still must obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build and operate the repository -- a process that could take four or five years -- and overcome a series of lawsuits brought by Nevada state officials.
"Our view is that this process is just beginning, not ending," said Joe Egan, Nevada's lead nuclear attorney.
By relying on a combination of geological barriers and hardened steel-alloy storage casks, the administration says the government could safely bury the radioactive refuse for at least 10,000 years without it leaching into underground water or escaping into the environment in harmful doses.
More than 40,000 tons of spent nuclear materials are stored in 131 aboveground sites in 39 states, and about 2,000 tons of new waste is generated annually. The Energy Department's goal is to ship the waste to the Yucca site by rail and truck, beginning in 2010. Critics and the General Accounting Office say that is highly optimistic.
Yesterday's vote followed months of intense efforts by Sens. Reid and Ensign to turn the tide running against them as nuclear waste accumulated at power plants and military weapons sites. From the start, Reid had the backing of most Senate Democrats, and he ardently wooed Democratic freshmen who had not previously voted on the Yucca issue. Ensign had a far harder job.
Day after day, Ensign went to the offices of nearly 40 of his 49 GOP colleagues, toting an inch-thick binder about the project, including detailed maps of possible rail and highway routes through each senator's state. He won praise for diligence, but earned no votes beyond those of the two GOP senators who supported him from the outset -- Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.) and Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.) -- and independent James M. Jeffords (Vt.).
Several senators expressed concerns about risks to their states as trucks and trains carry radioactive waste to the Nevada repository. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) wanted to rid Illinois of its large reservoir of nuclear waste, but was deeply troubled by the transportation dangers. After struggling for weeks, he decided to support the project, saying he was satisfied with its safety and would address transportation concerns in separate legislation.
For Utah Republican Sens. Orrin G. Hatch and Robert F. Bennett, there was a different dilemma. They feared that an Indian reservation in Utah's Skull Valley, about 40 miles from Salt Lake City, could become a privately developed waste repository if Yucca was rejected. After a White House meeting on Monday, the two senators pledged support for the Yucca Mountain plan.
"Given the choice before us, I would rather have the waste go through Utah than to Utah," Bennett said.
Approves Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Site,
July 10, 2002
WASHINGTON (AP) _ After a favorable Senate vote, the political verdict on Yucca Mountain is in, but the proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada still faces major hurdles, including lawsuits and a long licensing process.
The Senate gave President Bush the green light on Tuesday to proceed with the Yucca site, where the administration wants to entomb 77,000 tons of highly radioactive materials, most of it building up at power plants in 31 states.
The Senate voted 60-39 to override Nevada's veto of the project following action by the House in May. Under a 1982 law Nevada could have killed the project if Congress hadn't intervened.
A disappointed Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., nevertheless, insisted, ``this is not over'' and said the fight would continue before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and in the federal courts.
In Las Vegas, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn promised to pursue at least five lawsuits the state has filed challenging the Yucca project. ``We have made considerable headway in convincing others that Yucca Mountain is a bad idea,'' Guinn said.
But that message didn't reach enough senators.
Despite sharp criticism of the Yucca site by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and an intense lobbying effort by Reid and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., 15 Democrats and all but three Republicans sided with Bush on the issue.
The vote ``confirms the president's decision very forcefully'' and clears the way for the department to prepare a license application to the NRC by 2004, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said.
The Nevada lawsuits focus on a broad range of issues challenging everything from the failure of the Energy Department to develop a clear transportation plan to the Yucca engineers' use of man-made barriers to contain waste and the Environmental Protection Agency's health standard.
The NRC's review also is expected to be complex and lengthy, taking at least three or four years as the agency decides whether to issue a construction license and then a permit for the Yucca facility to accept waste.
``I believe it is a safe repository,'' Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said, adding that whatever issues remain to be resolved, it's up to the NRC to do it during its licensing review.
The target date for opening the facility, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is 2010.
Nevadans expressed mixed views of the Senate vote.
Dave Hall, 55, who farms alfalfa about 15 miles southwest of Yucca Mountain, said he didn't think the Yucca Mountain repository was an inevitability. ``Maybe they've decided here's the spot,'' he said. ``But there's still a long way to go and there are a whole lot of obstacles.''
Hall said he disagreed with neighbors and some Nevada political leaders who said the state should begin bargaining with the federal government for benefits such as improved roads, schools, water and sewers.
``No use fighting,'' said Doris Jackson, a saloon owner and chairwoman of the elected advisory board in Amargosa Valley, a rural Nevada desert town of 1,271 residents. ``It's done. Let's get what we can out of this.''
The Nevada senators tried for months to convince colleagues the issue was much broader than a single state because of the thousands of shipments of highly radioactive used reactor fuel that would be sent over highways and rail lines in 43 states if Yucca Mountain became a central repository.
But more senators appeared to be concerned about finding a way to get rid of wastes at reactors in their state, rather than worrying about wastes moving through. Many of the Democrats who voted for Yucca _ among them Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Bob Graham of Florida and John Edwards of North Carolina _ are from states where utilities are heavily committed to nuclear power.
Asked why he couldn't muster more opposition to the Yucca dump, Ensign replied: ``Nimby. Not in my backyard.''
Reid lashed out at nuclear lobbyists and their ``unending source of money'' for perpetuating ``the big lie'' that the Nevada dump was urgently needed. The waste _ most of it from nuclear power plants _ can be kept safely where it is, avoiding the transportation risks, Reid insisted.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, said if Congress let the Yucca project die, nuclear power itself would be threatened and a new hunt for a waste site would begin with no assurance where the search would lead.
``Looking for another site ... is not realistic,'' Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., argued, noting that Yucca Mountain has been studied for 24 years at a cost of $4.5 billion. While there are still uncertainties to be resolved, he said, ``we're not likely to find a better site next time.''
But Daschle, D-S.D., whose state has no nuclear power plant, complained that there were still ``far too many questions'' about the Yucca site's suitability to give it the go-ahead now.
Opponents also accused the Energy Department of failing to ensure that waste shipments _ anywhere from 175 to 2,200 a year, depending on the mix of rail and truck shipments _ will be safe and secure.
Abraham promised a transportation plan before the end of next year and said stringent safety requirements will provide an ``effective first line of defense'' against terrorist threats.