The U.S. Senate approved the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada, high-level radioactive waste dump 9 July by a vote of 60-39. The key and long-anticipated vote came on an arcane procedural issue, but it was clear to all what the stakes were.
(571.5423) NIRS – The final vote on Yucca was a mere voice vote, which was according to an agreement reached earlier in the day between nuclear industry backers and opponents including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SC) and Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid (D-NV), who led the opposition.
The vote indicated continuing and growing Senate opposition to the controversial Yucca Mountain project. For example, in President Clinton’s final year in office, his veto of an “interim” storage proposal at the Yucca site was sustained by merely one vote, 64-35. In post-vote wrap-up discussions, Senator Reid’s staff said they believed that had the vote been a little closer, they had another five to six Senators who would have switched sides and voted against Yucca, but who wouldn’t risk the wrath of the nuclear industry in a losing cause.Moreover, they said the nuclear industry and the White House were well aware of how close the vote could have been, to the point that the White House brought undecided Utah Republicans Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett in to meet with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham the day before the vote. Hatch and Bennett secured a pledge from Abraham that no federal money would be used for the Private Fuel Storage waste dump proposed for Utah. The two Republicans believed this pledge was sufficient to garner their votes – Bennett said he’d “rather have waste going through Utah, than to it,” but since no federal money has been contemplated for that proposed project, the pledge seemed rather hollow to outside observers.
With the vote outcome still in some doubt even hours before the final tally, Vice-President Dick Cheney reportedly was prepared to come to the Capitol from his usual “undisclosed” location and cast a tie-breaking vote if necessary, although with only one Senator absent (Jesse Helms, R-NC, a Yucca supporter), a tie seemed unlikely. Still, that was an indication of just how important this vote was to the Bush administration.
When the Administration first issued its approval of Yucca Mountainlast February, it was widely believed that opposition to the site would be steamrolled by a well-bankrolled nuclear industry, and indeed, the initial House of Representatives vote was nearly 3-1 in favor of the project. According to published reports, the nuclear industry has spent some $72 million over the past 10 years promoting the Yucca Mountain project. But Senators Reid and Daschle, and the nation’s environmental movement, waged a determined and increasingly successful battle against YuccaMountain and the accompanying radioactive waste transportation that it would require.
The results of this campaign could be readily seen. NIRS hand-delivered some 10,000 letters each to Indiana Senators Evan Bayh (D) and Richard Lugar (R), collected by Citizen Action Coalition of Indiana. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) told people his office had never received so much public involvement in an issue before. A tour of mock radioactive waste casks across the country resulted in substantial publicity and new awareness that Yucca Mountain would mean high-level waste casks traveling through neighborhoods and near schools, homes, shopping centers and the like. A website, established by the Environmental Working Group (www.mapscience.org) allowed anyone to type in an address and find out how close they would be to likely radioactive waste transport routes – and to see just how much waste would be left behind when Yucca Mountainreaches its legal storage limit. Popular rock bands, including Midnight Oil, B-52s, Indigo Girls, Bonnie Raitt, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, turned their tours into organizing sessions for anti-Yucca activities. They held press conferences, encouraged people to write their Senators, and provided a boost to local efforts everywhere.
Led by Public Citizen and the lobbying firm Podesta/Mattoon (hired by the State of Nevada), environmental groups met every Friday morning, and held conference calls every afternoon, to share information and plan new strategy.
By the week before the vote, momentum clearly had shifted to the anti-Yucca side. Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Jean Carnahan (D-MO), previously undecided or leaning toward supporting Yucca, announced their opposition to the project.
The nuclear industry and its allies at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce responded by running expensive and misleading radio ads in markets all across the country, urging people to contact their Senators to support Yucca. And the Bush Administration stepped in and made clear they wanted all Republicans to vote for Yucca.
In the end, only three Republicans opposed the project, and 15 Democrats supported it. But afterwards, Senator Reid said he was upbeat about the vote, and vowed to keep up his opposition to Yucca Mountain.
Not a final determination
And Senator Reid’s opposition will be crucial to Yucca Mountain’s future. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, all funding for the project must go through him, and he has regularly been able to slash funding. He also has been able to prevent efforts to take the project “off-budget,” which would take it out of the appropriations process. This will be a major nuclear industry goal next year.
But Yucca Mountain has a number of other hurdles to go through before it can begin accepting radioactive waste. First, the Department of Energy (DOE) must submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). By law, that is supposed to be done within 90 days of this vote. In fact, the DOE already has announced it will not happen before December 2004 – at the very end of the Bush Administration.
Then, the NRC must review the application, and open it to what surely will be lengthy and contentious licensing hearings. The last major construction hearing the NRC held, for the $1 billion Louisiana Energy Services uranium enrichment plant proposed for Homer, Louisiana, took five and a half years and resulted in the denial of the LES license (see “Louisiana Energy Services tries again in Tennessee” in this WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor). Yucca Mountain is a far more controversial, first-of-a-kind $60 billion engineering project. Hearings currently are scheduled to take four years; they could last a decade.
Meanwhile, the State of Nevada already has submitted several lawsuits against the project, and environmental groups including NIRS, led by Natural Resources Defense Council, have another pending against Environmental Protection Agency rule changes aimed at easing Yucca Mountain licensing. Nevada is expected to submit more lawsuits in the near future.
The Department of Energy also faces substantial engineering challenges. Although there is a five-mile long tunnel in the mountain, wide enough for radioactive waste trucks to pass through, DOE has not yet even designed the storage sites for the casks of waste the trucks would bring in. The casks themselves have not been built, nor have they been physically tested – something a growing number of Congressmembers want to see done before any waste transport begins.
The current cost estimate to build and operate Yucca Mountain for 100 years (although it would stop accepting waste after 24 years; by then, according to current law, it would be full) is $58 billion, a number that has been steadily rising over the years, and certainly will continue to increase.
But the Nuclear Waste Fund, which is a tax on all ratepayers of nuclear utilities, is expected to collect only about $35 Billion or so, leaving a huge shortfall that would have to be made up by taxpayers (including those same already-taxed ratepayers). The nuclear utilities, under current law, would not put in a single penny of their own money for Yucca Mountain. This is also likely to receive Congressional attention in future years.
As the Senate vote drew near, several Senators were drawn to the fact that Yucca Mountain is not the solution to nuclear waste that they had thought it was. In fact, if the reactors now operating continue to operate until the end of their licensed lifetimes, Yucca Mountain can legally handle only about 60% of the high-level waste they would produce – giving the lie to the nuclear industry’s assertions that it is somehow safer to store nuclear waste casks at one location at Yucca Mountain than at sites across the country. In fact, huge amounts of waste will remain at sites across the country even if Yucca Mountain is able to accept its full load. Senator James Jeffords (I-VT), previously an unabashed supporter of the project, switched his vote at the last minute when he confirmed that YuccaMountain would do little to rid Vermont of its nuclear waste, especially if Vermont Yankee continues to operate. Unfortunately, his “liberal” Democratic colleague, Patrick Leahy, voted for the project, as he has done every vote since 1995, under the mistaken impression that his NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude is both progressive and reflects reality.
When challenged by NIRS to defend that statement in light of the industry’s desire to build still more reactors, the lobbyist had little to say.The industry plans ahead
For its part, the nuclear industry is planning ahead. For them, the Yucca Mountain’s legal limit of 77,000 metric tons of radioactive waste – established in law to ensure that Nevada would not be the only state dumped upon – is irrelevant. The day after the vote, a Nuclear Energy Institute lobbyist told an international audience on Voice of America that the industry would be seeking to raise that limit to 120,000 metric tons, or approximately enough to handle all the waste from existing reactors even if they are relicensed.
The nuclear industry also is likely to attempt to again obtain congressional approval for an “interim” storage site at Yucca Mountain, so it may begin transport of the waste even before the site is ready to accept waste. But even some Yucca supporters hold increasing reservations about premature waste transport, making this a potentially tough sell for the industry.
And in fact, the nuclear industry has found itself in a conundrum. In order to sell Yucca Mountain to the public and the Congress, it has had to portray it as the “solution” to the nation’s nuclear waste woes. At the same time, the industry has publicly and often stated that opening Yucca Mountain would provide the “solution” that would enable it to begin building new commercial nuclear reactors.
But the reality, as was made increasingly clear during the Senate debate, is that Yucca Mountain is not the solution, it is a desperate site – prone to earthquakes, water movement, and unnecessary contamination – for a desperate industry. It can’t hold the nation’s nuclear waste, without a major change in the law; and even then can’t accommodate the industry’s desire for expansion. Already, the nation’s editorial writers, and perhaps some Senators, are taking a new look at the issue. If Yucca Mountain is not enough, if it presents only a partial illusion of a solution, and offers radioactive waste transport nightmares to boot, then how can the nation’s nuclear industry possibly justify building new atomic reactors? The simple fact is: they can’t, and now everyone is starting to realize that.
By winning the Yucca Mountain vote – which was just one stage in a long process – on the terms they themselves set, the nuclear industry may have sealed its own last goodbye.
Source and contact: Michael Mariotte at NIRS (firstname.lastname@example.org)