WASHINGTON – A House subcommittee approved legislation Tuesday that would allow for the first time the storage of nuclear waste in the bowels of Nevada's Yucca Mountain, but opponents to the massive project are still scrambling to make sure that never happens.
There were little fireworks during the 24-2 passage of the bill in the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee of the House Commerce and Energy Committee. Outside of the hearing room, however, opponents are shifting the focus to the dangers of transporting the waste, in hope of alerting residents and leaders in other states to the risks of moving the spent fuel.
"We have to convince everyone that this isn't just Nevada's problem," said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman recently. "We have to alert, not alarm, senators' constituents about the potential disaster happening in their backyards."
President Bush approved the use of Yucca Mountain last month after declaring it a scientifically sound location for nuclear waste. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham made a formal recommendation of the site in February after 20 years and $4 billion in environmental impact studies.
Transporting the existing 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel now scattered among the various sites will take care of an overcrowding problem as well as centralize storage more safely — 1,000 feet below the surface, in the desert and near an Air Force base, supporters say.
But efforts to raise concerns about moving the waste to the desert mountain could prove critical in getting congressional members to oppose the use of Yucca. Members in the House are widely expected to support opening Yucca. Senate support is harder to predict.
Opponents argue that moving the spent fuel from the nation's reactors to Nevada poses a grave danger, even though the waste is currently being stored at 131 different sites in varying degrees of above-ground containment.
"We don't advocate leaving it where it is forever, but the question at hand is whether to go forward with Yucca Mountain right now," said Kevin Camps, a nuclear waste specialist with the Nuclear Information Research Service.
While his group doesn't buy all of the fail-safe arguments in support of the Nevada site, he said the transport alone is "one of the deadliest terror targets imaginable."
A fact sheet on the NIRS Web site contends that "assuming the same accident rates as for past [nuclear] shipments, there would be at least 400 accidents involving spent fuel and high-level waste shipments during the 38-year shipping campaign."
On the contrary, the Department of Energy says there have been 3,000 transports of nuclear waste between facilities since 1964 and only eight have resulted in accidents. None of them resulted in leakage or injury due to radioactivity.
"It is just another attempt to scare people and to get members of Congress on board against it," Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said of the NIRS claims. Shimkus said that his state has overseen the safe transport of spent nuclear fuel between its 12 reactor sites for years.
"The record has been stellar," said Mitch Singer, a researcher with the Nuclear Energy Institute, which supports the Yucca Mountain project.
While numbers vary, NIRS says the project will require more than 96,000 truck shipments impacting 44 states and a combined population of 123,000 in major cities including St. Louis, Atlanta, Omaha, Chicago, and Indianapolis.
"They are going to ship as much waste in the first year as they have shipped since the dawn of the nuclear age," charged Camps. "This is unprecedented."
While the Energy Department has acknowledged that those cities are along highway routes to the storage facility, Abraham argued that the bigger interest is getting the waste away from communities.
"More than 161 million people live within 75 miles of one or more nuclear waste sites, all of which were intended to be temporary," Abraham told the subcommittee during a hearing last week. "We believe that today these sites are safe, but prudence demands we consolidate this waste from widely dispersed, above-ground sites into a deep underground location that can be better protected."
Singer said that NRIS has exaggerated how many shipments there will be, saying the numbers are closer to 200 shipments annually, about one and a half a day — not the five per day that opponents are talking about. He also said the opponents can't possibly know what the transport routes will be.
"[I]t is so many years off — the routes will be established by federal agencies with input from the states," said Singer. "At the most it will be three to eight years from now before they even talk about the routes."
Singer said the most strident naysayers are anti-nuclear, period, and won't be satisfied until the use of nuclear energy in this country is abolished completely.
"Their ultimate mission is getting rid of all nuclear power in this country — nothing is good," he said.
Camps responded: "Our organization is openly for the phase-out of all nuclear power," but, "as far as Yucca Mountain goes, it is the industry that has twisted the arguments in their favor."