The country's nuclear power plants are running out of room to store spent fuel on their own property, so a permanent disposal site is needed.
The Department of Energy has spent two decades studying the idea of placing casks of spent nuclear fuel deep underground for thousands of years. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has recommended going ahead with plans to create the Yucca Mountain depository.
President George Bush is expected to forward the proposal to Congress, but the entire chain of events is now suspect, said Wenonah Hauter, director of the Critical Mass program at the watchdog group Public Citizen.
"Secretary Abraham's site recommendation lacks credibility, given that this administration's energy policies have been seriously discredited by the inappropriate and secretive involvement of energy industry tycoons," Hauter told a gathering outside the House chambers.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a longtime opponent of the site, said many agencies, including the General Accounting Office, and a former director of the Yucca program, have concluded the science behind the plan is not complete. Both Reid and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., said Bush should take more time to examine all the evidence before making his decision.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said picking the site will not solve the nuclear waste problem.
"If Yucca Mountain is approved, 77,000 tons of deadly high-level nuclear waste will be transported on our nation's roads and rails, through 43 states, for the next 30 to 40 years," Berkley said in a statement. "DOE knows it would lose support (for the plan) if those routes were made public."
Even if the plan is approved and the site completed, spent fuel will continue to pile up at nuclear plants to satisfy a five-year "cooling-off" requirement before shipment, Public Citizen said in a statement. Yucca is not even large enough to hold the expected 88,000 tons of waste the nation's plants are expected to generate in their lifetimes, the group said.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying arm, said attacks on the plan's scientific basis are unjustified. A panel of scientists, chosen by the National Academy of Sciences to review the Yucca proposal, found "no individual technical or scientific factor has been identified that would automatically eliminate Yucca Mountain from consideration," NEI said in a statement. The academy recommended going ahead with the project in phases, the group said.
The GAO report Reid referred to confuses picking a suitable site with licensing a facility, NEI said. The Energy Department is aware of issues needing further study, and has fulfilled all the legal requirements for recommending the site, the group added.