States' last-ditch attempts to keep out nuclear waste

Nevada and South Carolina pursue court suits against nuclear shipments.

Two states – Nevada and South Carolina – are mounting last-ditch efforts to keep nuclear waste from being stored within their borders.

One day after the US Senate approved burying much of the nation's high-level radioactive waste beneath a volcanic mountain in Nevada, state officials are pushing ahead with at least five lawsuits to stop the plan.

In South Carolina, lawyers for Gov. Jim Hodges went to federal court yesterday to keep weapons-grade plutonium from being shipped to a Savannah River facility near the Georgia border. Both states are worried about the safety of transporting the materials and the possible catastrophic effect of leaks near major population centers.

Both states are running out of options.

In Nevada, the reaction ranges from anger to resignation over the US Senate vote Tuesday, which granted final approval of a plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, northwest of Las Vegas. The move opens the way for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to license the $58 billion project.

The site is scheduled to open in 2010 and hold 77,000 tons of spent commercial, industrial, and military nuclear fuel. The Environmental Protection Agency says the material must be isolated for 10,000 years.

But Nevada officials vow to continue their court fight against the project, which could mean more delays for a waste proposal that is backed by both President Bush and the nuclear industry. "We will not bargain, we will not negotiate, we will not waver in our determined opposition to Yucca Mountain," says Dario Herrera, chairman of the Clark County Commission.

Nevada has already filed suits in federal court to try to stop the dump from being built at the site, and will now argue to the NRC that the mountain is unsafe for nuclear waste, despite administration claims to the contrary.

In Las Vegas, just 95 miles from the proposed facility, officials say the federal government is ignoring the safety concerns of the region's 1.4 million people. Besides enduring worries about possible leaks in the underground site, critics argue that shipping the waste through more than 40 states to Nevada runs a risk of accident. The shipments, they argue, could also be a target for terrorists.

"I think the consensus is that it's inevitable, that it's like trying to change the course of the Colorado River," says Ed Goedhart, a dairy farmer and Amargosa Valley advisory board member. "I haven't resigned myself to that."

Nevadans overwhelmingly oppose the waste site. A survey earlier this year in the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that 83 percent of state residents don't want it, though 68 percent said they believed it was inevitable that the program would be approved.

Supporters like Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham say they're convinced that the tons of waste destined for Nevada can be stored safely for tens of thousands of years. Others, such as former Nevada Gov. Bob List, a lobbyist for the nuclear industry, say it's time for the state to learn to live with the site. "We really need to start accepting the reality of the situation and figure out ways to turn this to Nevada's economic advantage," he says.

Some residents and political leaders believe the state should begin bargaining with the federal government for benefits such as improved roads, schools, water, and sewers. "No use fighting," says Doris Jackson, a saloon owner and chairwoman of the elected advisory board in Amargosa Valley, a desert town of 1,271. "It's done. Let's get what we can out of this."

In South Carolina, the issue surrounds the temporary storage of weapons-grade plutonium from defense facilities. The legal claim by the state to keep it out turns on a simple argument: The Department of Energy will break its own rules if it ships plutonium to South Carolina from Colorado. The nuclear material is destined for the Savannah River site as the government works to close Colorado's former nuclear facility at Rocky Flats.

DOE plans to eventually convert the material into commercial nuclear fuel called MOX. Governor Hodges has been trying to keep the plutonium out of the state until there are firm guarantees it won't stay in South Carolina indefinitely. A federal court last month refused to temporarily block the shipments.

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