Yucca opponents met with skepticism

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News   |   May 22, 2002 at 4:39 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 22 (UPI) -- Nevada's attempt to sustain its veto of the proposed nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas, was met with some derision Wednesday during a Senate hearing.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is considering a resolution to override the veto. The House passed an override resolution earlier this month, and now the full Senate must do the same by July 25 for the project to move into a Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing phase.

Despite efforts to accommodate Gov. Kenny Guinn, R-Nev., and other elected state officials, the only witnesses before the committee were Robert Halstead, an adviser to the state's Agency for Nuclear Projects who lists Wisconsin as his home, and other out-of-state experts. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee's ranking member, found the discrepancy disturbing.

"I can only conclude that perhaps Nevada's interest is not of the intensity I once thought it was, otherwise we'd be hearing from Nevadans," Murkowski said. "This would have been important, because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act ... is ambiguous on the criteria for the state of Nevada to veto the site."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the committee chairman, said the witnesses had been selected by Nevada Sens. Harry Reid, Democrat, and John Ensign, Republican, in conjunction with Guinn's office. Although neither Reid nor Ensign sit on the committee, Bingaman allowed them to take part in the hearing.

Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., was skeptical of the state's response to Yucca. "I hope that when we talk about this issue we can try to get down to the facts and not the scare issues that are being used currently," he said.

Halstead led off the testimony by attacking the Department of Energy's current environmental impact statement for the Yucca project. Most telling is the lack of a transportation plan for spent nuclear fuel and other waste, he said.

"Construction of a repository at Yucca Mountain would result in tens of thousands of shipments of high-level nuclear waste," Halstead testified. "After 24 years (of shipments) under DOE's proposal, there would still be 49,000 metric tons of waste at 63 commercial sites. It is not clear what DOE intends to do with that waste."

Murkowski said the Bush administration would be required to finalize its transportation plan during the licensing process.

Halstead was among the witnesses who raised the specter of an antitank missile attack against a spent fuel shipment. Halstead said such an incident would require at least $10 billion to clean up, in order to avoid thousands of latent cancer cases. A UPI examination of the issue, however, indicates the chances of such a scenario are very remote, even without taking into account existing technology for defending against such weapons.

The DOE is trying to "stampede the nation into adopting Yucca," said Victor Gilinsky, a former NRC head now advising Nevada in its fight. The department failed to meet its responsibility to show Yucca's geologic features constitute a suitable site, he said.

The basis for such action is the mistaken belief that a long-term storage facility is needed to expand the use of nuclear power in the country, Gilinsky said. NRC regulations would allow further storage of spent fuel at commercial reactors for several decades, enough time to find a better solution, he said.

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