The Battle Over Nuclear Waste

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The war in Afghanistan can unite politicians only so long. As the flag waving and patriotic speeches die down, bitter domestic squabbles are returning that will divide Congress and the White House. One of the most heated battles is over the question of where to bury 7,7,000 tons of highly radioactive waste generated by this country's nuclear reactors.

Since 1987, Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert has been the only permanent repository the Department of Energy has considered to store the toxic garbage for at least the next 10,000 years. But Nevada's congressional delegation, led by the Senate's powerful majority whip, Harry Reid, has been fighting tooth and nail to keep the underground nuclear dump out of their state. Yucca Mountain is just 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas and they fear radioactivity from an underground storage facility there would eventually leak, contaminating nearby ground water used for drinking.

Late last week, Reid launched what amounted to a B-52 attack in his long-running legislative war to block the building of the Yucca repository. He released the results of a General Accounting Office report (that he and Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley commissioned) which concluded that the Energy Department can't stick to its timetable of recommending early next year that the Yucca site should be built "because it doesn't have all of the technical information needed for a recommendation and a subsequent license application." That's bad news considering that the Energy Department so far has spent a whopping $8 billion studying Yucca Mountain and other proposed repository sites.

The GAO report, however, has even more pessimistic conclusions that have Reid cheering. The Energy Department has projected that the Yucca Mountain repository will end up costing $57.5 billion and it wants to finish the project by 2010. But the GAO report predicts that the Energy Department not only won't meet those goals but that it also "has no reliable estimate of when, and at what cost, such a repository could be opened." Getting the repository up and running by 2013 is even "questionable," the GAO concludes.

Reid thinks he's struck the fatal blow. "This report could very well signal the beginning of the end of the Yucca Mountain project," he predicts. He and Berkely had ordered up the GAO probe after an anonymous whistleblower sent a letter to the Energy Department's inspector general charging waste, fraud and abuse in the Yucca project. The GAO findings also come on the heels of revelations that a Chicago law firm the Energy Department hired to help guide the project through the licensing process had been lobbying Congress on behalf of the nuclear industry. The firm denied a conflict of interest but has withdrawn from the program. Now the GAO report "has the potential to derail the Yucca project altogether," claims Congresswoman Berkley. "This is the smoking gun we've been looking for."

Not so fast. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who's furious that the GAO report was prematurely leaked, dismissed the study as "fatally flawed." Abraham appears intent on recommending to President Bush soon that the nuclear waste be located at Yucca. If Bush agrees, Nevada's governor and legislature can still veto the site. But Congress then has 60 days to override the state's disapproval. If it gets to that point, count on Reid to use all his powers as Senate majority whip to block the congressional override.

But he'll have a fight on his hands. Bush needs the Yucca repository. His energy plan, unveiled last May, envisions building more nuclear power plants, which now supply 22% of the nation's electricity. But he can't expand nuclear power unless he finds a place to store its refuse for the long-term. Bush will push hard for Yucca and he'll have allies in Congress. Thirty-six states have the nation's 104 nuclear power plants. Don't bet on their congressional delegations standing with the Nevadans if it means radioactive garbage piling up in their backyards. So look for this war to heat up through next year.