WASHINGTON – 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.