WASHINGTON – Nevada's congressional delegation and its governor predicted Tuesday an uphill fight in Congress to keep thousands of tons of nuclear waste from being shipped into their state for disposal.
"The deck is stacked against us. We're going to try to restack the deck," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who knows something about card games as a former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission.
While the Nevadans are facing a long-shot chance of succeeding, they outlined their essentialmajority of nuclear reactors are located in the eastern half of the country.
Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, formally rejected construction of the Yucca facility in papers filed with Congress on Monday, leaving the next step to the House and Senate. President Bush in February directed that the Nevada site be built, but under the law Nevada has a right to veto that decision. Congress, in turn, can override Nevada's objection.
The procedures outlined by the law assures that Congress move as quickly as possible to consider a resolution upholding the president's decision. Unlike normal legislation, no senator may filibuster the resolution and any senator may bring it to the Senate floor for consideration after 60 days. Congress has 90 legislative days to act, or the Yucca site will be abandoned.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told Reid he would "try and ensure" that no Democratic senator acts to bring the resolution up for floor consideration. Whether he will succeed remains to be seen. While Daschle normally would control when a measure is taken up by the Senate, in this case any Republican senator may force Senate action after a 60-day waiting period. Approval is by majority.
"We have an uphill fight to pick up 49 more votes," said Reid.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and other supporters argue that the Nevada site, which eventually would contain 77,000 tons of waste that will remain radioactive for more than 10,000 years, is scientifically proved and that the waste can be stored there safely. If Congress gives the go-ahead, the Energy Department must still receive a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and also faces a court challenge.
"Our court case will be very strong," said Guinn.
Nevada in a lawsuit charges that the Energy Department was obligated to find a disposal site where the geology will keep the waste from escaping into the environment for thousands of years. The lawsuit alleges the Yucca site does not meet that standard, requiring reliance on manmade barriers whose future performance is uncertain.
For the time being, however, the Nevadans hope to convince enough members of Congress to question the transportation of thousands of tons of highly radioactive waste from civilian power reactors and federal facilities in 34 states.
"It isn't a question of if there will be an accident, it's a question of when and where," maintained Reid, standing in front of a large map showing the likely routes nuclear waste shipments will take, mostly across the country's Interstate system.
He said there will be more than 120,000 shipments over 24 years by both rail and highway. The Energy Department has yet to develop a detailed transportation plan showing routes, but administration officials and the nuclear industry maintain that the shipments can be conducted safely and securely.
The administration has argued that consolidating the highly radioactive waste — most used fuel rods from power reactors — at one location will add to security and safety. If not taken to Yucca Mountain, the wastes would remain in aboveground storage at reactor sites.
Storage at reactors could be done safely and with security for as long as 100 years "while we study the technology to recycle the waste," said Ensign.
Currently the United States has a policy against recycling nuclear waste, although the Energy Department is studying ways to possibly do it in the future, thereby reducing — although not entirely eliminating — the volume of waste that will eventually have to be buried.
Even if the Yucca Mountain repository were opened — as is planned by 2010 if approval is given — there would still be nuclear waste at reactor sites, argue the Nevadans. Fuel rods coming from a reactor must be cooled for several years before they are ready for shipment.