WASHINGTON – President Bush accepted a recommendation from his energy secretary that Yucca Mountain in Nevada become the repository for 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste from nuclear plants around the country, White House officials announced Friday.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham formally recommended the site to Bush Thursday in a letter in which he said he is convinced the proposal for a nuclear waste facility 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas is "based on sound scientific principles that ... will be able to protect the health and safety of the public."
"They have reviewed more than 17,000 documents, had more than 100 public hearings. This has been over a 20-year period, that was based on a scientific and technological investigation," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer Friday.
The decision earned immediate criticism from the House Minority Leader.
"I am deeply disappointed by the administration's decision on Yucca Mountain. There is not nearly enough scientific knowledge to reach a conclusion about the safety of transporting, then dumping, thousands of tons of radioactive, nuclear waste in the state of Nevada," said Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. "I will work with other Democratic Leaders in the House and the Senate to overturn the administration's decision in Congress and to safeguard the health of the people of Nevada."
Abraham notified Nevada a month ago that he would recommend the site to the president. He said it had been studied for 20 years at a cost of more than $4 billion and had been shown to be "scientifically and technically suitable."
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Abraham's recommendation "a hasty, poor, and indefensible decision" at a time when "the science does not yet exist" to ensure the wastes can be contained for thousands of years.
If, as expected, the Nevada legislature objects, it will trigger an intense lobbying effort by Nevadans in Congress, where a majority vote of lawmakers can override the state's objection. That would clear the way for the administration to seek construction and operating licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Nevada has 60 days to file a protest. Then, Congress has 90 days to override. Even if approved and licensed, the site is not expected to open and accept waste until 2010 at the earliest.
About 40,000 tons of used reactor fuel, which will remain highly radioactive for as long as 10,000 years, currently sit in waste pools and concrete bunkers at 103 commercial power reactors in 31 states. Power plants produce about 2,000 tons of used reactor rods a year.
Abraham said, "compelling national interests," made more apparent by the Sept. 11 terror attacks, require development of a remote centralized disposal site.
"More than 161 million people live within 75 miles of one or more of these sites" that now hold the waste, Abraham said.
Nevada's senators have said that while Abraham wants to create a safe place to store the waste, the transport of the waste, via truck shipments, is unsafe.
Nevada Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn and members of the state's congressional delegation went to the White House last week to ask that Bush not act hastily on Yucca Mountain. Guinn was sharply critical of Abraham's decision, because state officials contend the safety of the site has not been assured.
On Friday, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman attacked Bush for his decision.
"I called him a blockhead before, I've called him a fathead before, it's too good for him," Goodman said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.