Virtually every Republican voted to override the veto of Gov. Kenny Guinn, R-Nev., and about half of the Democratic caucus went along, bringing the Bush administration a little closer to fulfilling its plan to increase U.S. nuclear energy use. Analysts have said a viable solution for storing spent nuclear fuel is necessary to build and license more nuclear plants, the last of which was approved in the early 1970s.
Nevada's House delegation fought doggedly against every step in the process. Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., led off discussion on the override legislation by saying it should not even be considered, arguing the project violates congressional rules against unfunded mandates.
"The Congressional Budget Office is unable to tell us how much it will cost our local communities to implement the Nuclear Waste Management Act," Gibbons said. "Passage of (the override) provides the government a blank check to proceed with the project."
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., said Gibbons' objection had no basis in fact, since the CBO estimate itself said no new mandates are imposed, and any additional costs would fail to trigger the relevant rules. The Nuclear Waste Fund has billions of dollars available to help defray future expenses in any case, Tauzin said.
The House defeated Gibbons' objection on a 308-105 vote. Rep. Shelly Berkley, D-Nev., attempted to table the override until the year 2006, the estimated endpoint for several scientific studies on Yucca, but the effort failed when Tauzin objected.
The Yucca proposal would store the nation's tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel and other waste in an underground facility. Regulations would call for the site to isolate the waste for thousands of years, but opponents say the Energy Department's recommendation is flawed.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said the proposal amounts to a "nuclear Ponzi scheme" that simply shunts responsibility for existing nuclear waste onto future generations.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the override's passage will help keep a promise Congress made to the American people.
"It has been nearly two decades, at a cost of almost $18 billion from monthly utility bills, that electricity customers have been waiting for a centralized, long-term storage site that has yet to materialize," Hastert said. "By federal law, it should have been on-line by 1998. We've paid for it, now it's time to deliver it."
Gibbons rued the House defeat, and said the state's efforts will continue in the Senate.
"Unfortunately, this train left the station back in 1987 when the decision to single out Yucca Mountain was made, based on politics and not on science," Gibbons said. "Today, like in 1987, it was Nevada against 49 other states, most of which have much greater representation in the House than ours."
Congressional staffers said the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will take up the override issue in hearings next week. According to the provisions of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, both bodies of Congress must approve the override by a simple majority in order for the project to move forward.
Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., said earlier on Wednesday he was "cautiously optimistic" the Senate would trump the House vote. Yucca opponents are hoping to get at least 12 Republican senators on their side, Reid said, but wouldn't say whether or not he's sure of 39 Democratic votes. Reid implied several senators have promised their support in case of a close vote, which he expects will occur by early July.
Reid invoked the specter of Hiroshima in reiterating Nevada's worries about shipping spent nuclear fuel and other waste across the country to the site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. While the nuclear power industry has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying for Yucca, he said, opponents have not sat on their hands.
"We can't match what (industry is) doing, and that's an understatement," Reid said. "We're not going to tip our mitt, but the nuclear power industry is going to know they've been in a fight. We've just begun to fight (with commercials). We have TV, we have other things that will make them reassess what they've done."