Congressional Votes Imminent on Yucca Mountain

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Publication date: 
26 April 2002
Number: 
51

"The Department's scientific inquiries and modeling clearly demonstrate that a repository at Yucca Mountain can meet the Environmental Protection Agency's standards for protecting the health and safety of our citizens." - Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham

"Nevada considers the Yucca Mountain project to be the product of extremely bad science, extremely bad law, and extremely bad public policy." - Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn

A 90-day clock is ticking on a resolution that, if passed, would allow the Department of Energy to take the next step toward developing an underground repository for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain.

The resolution (H.J. Res 87), introduced in the House by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) on April 11, states:

"Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that there hereby is approved the site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for a repository, with respect to which a notice of disapproval was submitted by the Governor of the State of Nevada on April 8, 2002."

President Bush on February 15 made a decision to go forward with the Yucca Mountain site as the nation's first permanent repository for nuclear waste, based on Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's conclusion that the site is "scientifically and technically suitable." On April 8, Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn, as is his prerogative, announced a veto of Bush's decision. Now Congress has 90 legislative days in which to vote to overturn the governor's veto, if it so chooses. Barton's resolution, which was approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday on a 41-6 vote, would override the governor's veto.

Even if passed by both House and Senate, however, this resolution would not immediately approve Yucca Mountain as a repository. Instead, it would allow DOE to proceed to the next step, which is to submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC would then have up to four years to review the evidence of the site's suitability, and decide whether or not to issue a license.

In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to require that DOE focus solely on Yucca Mountain as a possible site for spent fuel from the nation's nuclear power plants. The Energy Department was required to start accepting waste from the plants in 1998, but cannot comply because no repository has yet been developed to store the waste. After more than 20 years and $4 billion in research, and over 100 public hearings, Abraham concluded, "I am convinced that...this research provides a sound scientific basis for concluding that the site can perform safely during both the pre- and post-closure periods, and that it is indeed scientifically and technically suitable for development as a repository." Abraham's recommendation to President Bush and other relevant DOE documents regarding the Yucca Mountain site can be found at http://www.ymp.gov.

At an April 18 hearing of Barton's Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, Abraham pointed out that a congressional override of Governor Guinn's veto means that the issues surrounding Yucca Mountain will be brought before the NRC as an "independent, neutral, objective organization," while "failure to override ends the Yucca Mountain project." Most subcommittee members were in agreement that the process should move forward. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) stated that "the vast majority of Members of Congress are not qualified to pass judgment on the specifics of the Secretary's findings.... That is why the Act requires DOE to obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."

At the hearing, three members of the Nevada congressional delegation spoke against the planned repository. Rep. Jim Gibbons urged that safer, more innovative and less costly ways to dispose of nuclear waste be sought. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) raised concerns about accidents while transporting the waste and noted that since spent fuel must remain in cooling pools at nuclear plants for several years before being moved, a repository would not eliminate waste stored at plants, but simply add one more waste site. Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) charged that "from the beginning...our state has been the victim of Washington power politics," and questioned the vulnerability to terrorist attacks of waste being shipped across the country. Although Governor Guinn was unable to attend the hearing, his submitted testimony quoted the conclusion of a peer review report by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency that "DOE's level of understanding of the hydrogeology of the site is 'low, unclear, and insufficient to support an assessment of realistic performance.'"

Ms. Gary Jones of the General Accounting Office testified that there are nearly 300 issues upon which DOE needs to provide further information to NRC in the process of applying for a license. She declared, "DOE is not prepared to submit an acceptable license application to the NRC" within the statutory 90-day period that would follow a congressional override of the veto. Abraham acknowledged that DOE would not be ready to submit an application within that period, but indicated that he hoped to submit an application by the end of 2004.

Also testifying was Dr. Jared Cohon, chair of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which was established by Congress for ongoing independent evaluation of DOE's activities on this matter. While making no judgment on whether Yucca Mountain should be approved, Cohon reported that the Board finds "the technical basis" for DOE's estimates of Yucca Mountain performance to be "weak to moderate at this time."

The full House is expected to approve Barton's resolution, possibly within the next two weeks, but the fate of the resolution in the Senate is not so clear. The entire Nevada congressional delegation opposes siting a repository at Yucca Mountain, and Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), as Senate Majority Whip, has a great deal of influence in that chamber. The Senate must approve the resolution by 51 votes. An ongoing survey by National Journal's CongressDaily currently shows 40 senators supporting an override of Nevada's veto, 15 against it, 32 as yet undecided, and 13 who did not respond.

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