Congress, finally, may act on nuclear waste

Senate today will vote on a long-discussed issue that would start shipments to a Nevada storage facility.

Warning of a mounting "crisis" in US nuclear waste storage, Senate advocates are struggling this week to accelerate a plan to bury up to 77,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive debris deep under Nevada's remote Yucca Mountain.

The Senate is expected to vote as early as today to pass legislation that would start shipments of spent fuel to Yucca Mountain in 2007. This assumes the government acts on time to approve the desert site next year and grants a license in 2006 to build a permanent, central repository.

"It's mandatory that we come together now and resolve this issue," said bill sponsor Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, urging colleagues not to leave the waste in their states. "Nobody wants the waste ... [but] you can't throw it up in the air because it's going to come down somewhere!"

The bill would alleviate a costly storage crunch facing the nation's more than 100 US commercial nuclear plants, which supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity. The plants currently store more than 40,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, but 85 of them will run out of storage space by 2010.

The storage problem has already cost ratepayers of nuclear-generated electricity about $15 billion, says Senator Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The bill would also encourage the settlement of waste-related lawsuits by utilities firms against the Department of Energy. The firms are seeking billions of dollars in damages in federal court for the DOE's alleged breech of contract for failing to meet a 1998 deadline to begin storing the highly radioactive waste.

A key compromise that would have allowed DOE to meet its legal obligations by "taking title," or ownership, of the waste stored at power plants was scuttled - at least temporarily - on Tuesday. Senate sponsors removed the "take title" language after it drew objections from seven governors. Concerned that federal control could lead to permanent on-site waste storage in their states, the governors asked their senators to vote against the bill, GOP sources say.

The legislation faces strong opposition from antinuclear groups, the Nevada senators, and other Democrats, as well as a veto threat by President Clinton. As a result, Republican leaders were scrambling with a slew of last-minute changes and amendments aimed at clinching the 67 votes needed for a veto-proof majority.

The Senate's inability to overcome a veto has been the primary stumbling block for the legislation in recent years. A more aggressive House version of the bill, envisioning storage at Yucca Mountain beginning in 2003, cleared the House Commerce Committee in April and is expected to pass the full House.

The long-awaited legislation would amend the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which required the Energy Department to construct a permanent underground facility to store nuclear waste. A 1987 amendment stipulated that the department focus its research on Yucca Mountain, located near a former nuclear-weapons test site about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. If built, the Yucca Mountain repository isn't expected to open until at least 2010.

Opponents of the bill raise health, safety, and environmental concerns both about transporting the nuclear waste and storing it at Yucca Mountain. Noting the possibility of earthquakes and water seepage, they question whether the mountain can effectively isolate hazardous materials that will remain deadly for tens of thousands of years.

"We feel it's a bad site that will leak radiation into the environment and expose people downstream to high doses," says Kevin Kamps, a nuclear-waste specialist at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an antinuclear group here.

The White House and some Senate Democrats have pushed successfully for revisions aimed at strengthening safety provisions of the Senate bill. These include training for those responsible for transporting the waste, and allowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - not the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) - to set stricter radiation standards for the Yucca Mountain region.

"Major progress has been made on a number of topics," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The EPA proposes a standard of 15 millirems per year of radiation exposure, compared with 25 millirems in the NRC proposal. In addition, unlike the NRC, the EPA would include a separate requirement that groundwater radiation not exceed 4 millirems per year.

Nuclear-industry supporters admit that radioactive waste would seep into the water sooner or later. "Ultimately, there is the presumption that the material would make its way from the canisters through the rocks and into the ground water to some distance from Yucca Mountain," says Ralph Andersen, a health physicist at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which lobbies for the industry. But such leaking could take thousands of years, he says.

Advocates maintain that Yucca Mountain represents the most viable waste disposal option. "Deep geologic storage is the best way," says Scott Peterson, spokesman for the NEI.

Critics disagree, arguing that the radioactive waste should remain stored where it is while scientists research alternatives to geologic storage.

"We have to go back to the drawing board," says Mr. Kamps.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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