WASHINGTON – Yucca Mountain, Nev., is ground zero for the politically radioactive issue of nuclear waste storage, and by a vote of 306-117 the House has voted to override objections from Gov. Kenny Guinn and go ahead with President Bush's plan to make Yucca the national repository for nuclear waste.
"What this bill does today is to give us the ability to study that location and make sure it is a safe place to go," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Actually, the volcanic ridge 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas was chosen by the president in February after 20 years of federal study costing nearly $7 billion. Nevada, as was its right under federal law, challenged the selection, and Congress alone can override the state's protest.
The Senate is expected to vote in July, and then final approval depends on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission making the site feasible.
The 103 nuclear power plants around the country are reaching storage capacity for the 77,000 tons of nuclear waste built up in 31 states, and the government has been sued several times for failing to meet a 1998 deadline to establish a permanent storage site. Even if the NRC gives its final approval this year, shipments to Yucca would not begin until 2010 and would last for 24 years.
Critics say even if the site is approved, only 33,000 tons of waste will be shipped there.
Nevada lawmakers have been fighting furiously to prevent the radioactive waste dump from opening, saying they don't want it in their backyard, and opponents say they don't want it shipped there through their backyards.
"Over 10,000 train, truck and barge shipments, each carrying deadly high-level nuclear waste, would have to go through 45 states, over 300 congressional districts and hundreds of cities and towns," said Rep. Lynn Rivers, D-Mich.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham insists Yucca can store nuclear waste safely for 10,000 years even in the event of earthquakes, volcanoes, glaciers, and attacks. He said shipping also will be safe.
"In the last 30 years, without one instance of harmful radiation leakage in the U.S. and Europe, we have transported as much waste as will be transported to Yucca. We've done it safely. The track record is unblemished," Abraham said.
Senate passage appears likely, but the chief opponent is the Democrats' No. 2 leader, the majority whip responsible for twisting arms and counting votes, Sen. Harry Reid from Nevada.
"With what's taking place today in making sure people know the dangers, we're going to continue fighting, we are cautiously optimistic we can prevail," Reid said.
Currently, Reid does not have enough votes to stop the Yucca project in the Senate, and the vote-counting Democratic whip knows it. He's said he needs at least a dozen Republicans to vote against Yucca to kill it. So far, only two have signed on and he has little hope of winning over many more despite several Senate committee hearings scheduled for later this month.