WASHINGTON – Don't look now, but a truck full of nuclear waste could be passing through your neighborhood soon.
That was the warning not heeded by senators Tuesday, who debated for four hours before signing off on approving Nevada's Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste site.
GOP pushing set up a 60-39 vote for a motion to proceed on a vote. The site was approved by voice vote. Opponents knew the decision was a long time coming but had hoped it would never arrive.
"The day has arrived," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who vigorously fought the waste site. "Nobody's happy with what we're doing, but it's the best we could do."
If Congress did not act, countered Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, nuclear power itself would be threatened, the government could face lawsuits from utilities, and lawmakers will have to start looking all over again for a waste site with no indication where the search might lead.
Asked why he could not muster more opposition to the Yucca dump among GOP senators, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., replied: "Nimby. Not in my backyard. They do not want to reopen this."
The vote follows House approval of a plan to store the nation's nuclear waste 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas, and allows the Bush administration to proceed on a plan that has been under study for two decades at a cost of $4.5 billion.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., tried to prevent the Senate from taking action on the issue, arguing that any delay in accounting reform legislation would look bad for Republicans. But the GOP didn't want to let pass the July 26 deadline for action, which would have automatically shut down consideration of the site following the Nevada governor's veto of the Bush plan.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the Senate was forced to act or be "squeezed" by the deadline.
Fifteen Democrats joined all but three GOP senators in supporting the site. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., did not vote.
Reid and Ensign had struggled for months to rally enough support for the Senate to block the waste site, telling lawmakers that most of the waste would have to pass through their states on trucks to get to Nevada.
Ensign admitted that the argument wasn't enough to sway senators, who would rather see the waste move through their states than remain in the 43 states that house 132 reactor sites
"I would much rather have [the waste] pass through than stop and stay," Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, told reporters after he and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, met with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and White House chief of staff Andrew Card. Most of the waste will have to travel through Utah to get to Nevada.
Opponents of the Yucca site also maintained that the truck and rail shipments — from 175 if all were by dedicated trains to 2,200 a year by trucks — raise the potential for terrorist attacks or releases of radiation in a major transportation accident.
Abraham reiterated Monday that the nuclear industry has a history of safe waste shipments and that waste will be in containers designed to withstand severe accidents.
The government has spent nearly $7 billion reviewing what to do with the 77,000 tons of radioactive waste. $4.5 billion of that money was spent studying Yucca, a site that is considered free of earthquake fault lines and the safest spot in the nation for burying the waste.
The Yucca Mountain repository still needs eight years of development to make it leak proof before it opens in 2010. About 3,000 tons of waste shipments a year for at least 24 years will then be in store.