BOSTON — Congress is grappling this week with one of the nation's most expensive and dangerous environmental problems - where to dump tons of hazardous nuclear waste that no state seems to want in its backyard.
Regardless of who finally winds up with the radioactive waste, Congress's decision on the issue will affect virtually every American: those who live near a nuclear power plant or rely on one for some of their electricity; those along the likely routes of transport for spent nuclear fuel on the way to its final resting place; and those whose tax or utility bill is higher because handling such material is a costly and a risky business.
"Five decades of experience with nuclear waste teaches us that ignoring the problem will not make it go away," says Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, senior Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
If a bipartisan group of lawmakers and governors have their way, more than 30,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste from 110 nuclear power plants in 34 states will head for temporary - and perhaps permanent storage at the remote Yucca Mountain site about 75 miles from Las Vegas, Nev.
Although this is the solution Republicans have pushed, they have the support of Democrats such as Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, and Govs. Zell Miller of Georgia, Howard Dean of Vermont, and Lawton Chiles of Florida, among others.
In a recent letter to President Clinton, Governor Chiles warned that three of the five nuclear power plants in Florida will run out of on-site storage space two years before the US Department of Energy, in its most optimistic prediction, says it can find a permanent waste repository.
Other nuclear power plants across the US face a similar threat. The end result could be to shut down these plants. "Nuclear power plants were not designed to be permanent waste-storage facilities. So, in many cases, fuel storage facilities at these plants are nearly full," warns the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, which represents utilities and companies that design and build nuclear power plants.
In essence, Chiles and these other elected officials want the nuclear waste piling up at power plants in their states to go somewhere else - preferably somewhere remote and lacking in political clout. Nevada fits the bill, but Nevadans are not about to accept the rest of the nation's nuclear mess without a fight.
Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, both Democrats, have resorted to filibustering in an attempt to stop the bill.
On the floor the other day, Senator Reid blasted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act as "corporate welfare at its worst," a bill that "guts existing law of its environmental and safety provisions and forces the government to take responsibility for the waste and liability of the nuclear power industry."
Reid also warns about plans to transport nuclear waste through 43 states. "Nuclear waste is not just a Nevada problem. Far from it. Every town and community along the transportation rail lines would be in danger as lethal radioactive waste barrels through," he says.
"There is no room for negotiation," Reid contends. "I am prepared to object to every measure before the Senate in order to stop this unnecessary and dangerous nuclear-waste bill from moving forward."
But yesterday, backers of the bill won enough votes to invoke cloture (65 to 34), thereby cutting off the filibuster and moving the debate about the specifics of the bill to the full Senate.
"Nobody wants nuclear waste in their state, but as United States Senators, we must sometimes take a national perspective," Sens. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska and Larry Craig (R) of Idaho wrote in a "dear colleague" letter last week.
Backers of the measure say central storage will save nearly $8 billion for those electricity consumers who now pay a portion of their utility bills into a special "nuclear waste fund" established by Congress in 1982.
To ease passage, they have made moves to placate the measure's critics. For example, it is now made clear that any interim or permanent waste storage site will need a full environmental impact statement. Other environmental laws, such as those dealing with the movement of hazardous waste, will take precedence, as will state, local, and Indian tribal laws.
But the conciliatory moves have not appeased critics of the waste-dumping plan. The Critical Mass Energy Project, part of consumer advocate Ralph Nader's Public Citizen organization, charges that "the substantive thrust of the measure remains the same: an effort to slash environmental standards, transfer title of nuclear waste to taxpayers, and start the largest waste transportation enterprise in history before a long-term solution is at hand."
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California gave opponents more ammunition this week when it warned that some nuclear-weapons production and storage sites - including Yucca Mountain - are vulnerable to earthquakes and other natural disasters. At Yucca Mountain, the report states, hot volcanic material "could ascend directly through the repository ... compromising the integrity of the waste isolation system."
Mr. Clinton had indicated that he would veto the original Yucca Mountain proposal on grounds that it designates an interim storage site before a permanent geologic repository is found. The new version of the bill allows the president - Democrat or Republican - to choose a different interim site before July 2000. Whether this gives the bill a better chance of passage - or of overcoming another filibuster - remains unclear.