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Debate between Steve Kerekes and Michael Mariotte - 2002-07-10


The U.S. Senate just voted to approve the proposed Yucca Mountain site as a national repository for waste from nuclear power plants. The site has been studied, debated, and tested for more than 20 years, but doubt still exists about the safety of the plan. On VOA-TV’s “NewsLine,” host David Borgida moderated a debate on the issue. Participating in this “Pro and Con” about Yucca Mountain are Steve Kerekes, with the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Michael Mariotte, Executive Director of the Nuclear Information Resource Service.

MR. BORGIDA:
Here in Washington, the U.S. Senate has approved the Bush administration plan to store much of the nation's nuclear waste beneath Yucca Mountain in the Western U.S. State of Nevada. This is our Pro and Con topic, our segment, our opportunity to get into the story in depth. And here to discuss the Senate action with us, in favor of the Senate action, Steve Kerekes, from the Nuclear Energy Institute, and against the Senate action, Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information Resource Service.

Michael and Steve, thanks so much for joining us.

Let's begin with both of you giving us a brief, if you can, reaction to the Senate vote, and we'll go from there. Mr. Mariotte, please?

MR. MARIOTTE:
The first thing to understand is that this is just one step in what has been already a 20-year process and will continue going on for at least another decade. We have court cases, we have licensing hearings before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that will be very contentious and extend several years, and we have more legislative roadblocks ahead. So this vote does not mean that Yucca Mountain will open.

MR. BORGIDA:
Mr. Kerekes?

MR. KEREKES:
This is indeed a great day for United States energy security and for common sense environmentalism. As Michael aptly points out, there has been 20 years of science, $4 billion of study, put into this particular site. It is the most studied site on the planet. It is clear from what has been done thus far, there are no show-stoppers to preclude us from moving to the next phase, which is the licensing process, in which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will examine the Energy Department's application. But it is a strong, positive step forward for United States energy security.

MR. MARIOTTE:
You say there have been no show?stoppers, but you have to remember that the U.S. General Accounting Office has said that there are 293 unresolved items. The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which is an independent agency created by Congress, has described the science at Yucca Mountain as "moderate to weak."

MR. KEREKES:
It also said, Michael, that there are no show-stoppers that would prevent us from going to the next step.

MR. MARIOTTE:
Well, there may not be a single show-stopper, but we may well find that a long series of lesser problems are going to be enough to preclude this site. I think we are a long ways from having a site. And it is also important to understand, which I don't think a lot of the Senators yesterday understood, that Yucca Mountain has a legal limit as to how much waste can go into it. And we are talking about 40 percent of the waste we're expected to create is not even going to go there. And you guys want to build more plants.

MR. KEREKES:
That's a clever ruse, but in fact the 70,000-ton limit that is in place is simply an arbitrary one that was established by Congress. There is ample evidence, contained in the environmental impact statement that was done for Yucca Mountain, that if indeed they proceed with this site -- and that is something that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will determine -- if they go forward, this site does have the capability to go up to some 120,000 tons, which is almost a 50 percent increase, and still be in compliance, full compliance, with the rigorous safety standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress understood that very well.

MR. MARIOTTE:
Well, true, but you will have to acknowledge that if your industry's plan to build more nuclear power plants over the next several decades -- I forget how many; I think you wanted to have 50,000 megawatts of new nuclear power in place by the year 2020 -- if you do that, if you continue with the license extensions of existing reactors that the industry has been seeking, Yucca Mountain is not going to be big enough to handle all of that, regardless of what Congress does.

MR. KEREKES:
Taking Yucca Mountain to a 120,000?ton capacity would indeed take us through a complete license renewal, with 20-year extensions for all our plants. As for new nuclear power plants, that's something the market will determine. But what is clear is that our nation needs more electricity, some 350,000 to 400,000 additional megawatts of electricity, over the next 20 years. That is a lot of electricity, and that is why Congress is moving to assure our energy security over the long term and establishing that nuclear energy will be, very importantly, part of that mix.

MR. BORGIDA:
Gentlemen, let me jump in for a minute, because I want to personalize this for just a moment in the last few minutes we have left. Please take a stab at this: If you are addressing a citizen of the State of Nevada, what would you tell them after this vote? Mr. Kerekes, what would you tell them? And, Mr. Mariotte, what would you tell them? Mr. Kerekes, first, please.

MR. KEREKES:
The first thing I would tell them is that the best scientific minds have put their attention to this issue for some 20 years. This has not been thrown together in any kind of haphazard fashion. The second point I would make is that the nuclear energy industry, which demands exacting high standards of safety for our nuclear facilities, is going to do everything it can to work with Federal authorities to assure that maximum safety is established at that facility. And for that reason, for the maximum safety benefit for the residents of that State, we would encourage the political leadership in Nevada to drop its opposition and work, really, to join forces and see that this process moves forward positively.

MR. BORGIDA:
Mr. Mariotte?

MR. MARIOTTE:
I don't think there is any chance that the political leadership in Nevada is going to drop opposition to this site. I think my words today would be “don't give up hope.” I think the chances that Yucca Mountain will actually ever be licensed and open and accepting waste are still no better than 50/50. There is a long ways to go. Like I said before, there are a lot of court cases that are coming up, and surely more will be filed. There is a very lengthy licensing process. We are a long ways from having Yucca Mountain, and we still may not get it. The Department of Energy does not have a real good track record at handling major projects like this.

MR. BORGIDA:
Mr. Mariotte, you do understand the political process, as all of us do, and there is a phenomenon called political momentum. And that is, at the moment, not on your side. Would you concede that?

MR. MARIOTTE:
I would concede that to a degree, but we also have to remember that Nevada Senator Harry Reid is still chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, and money to be spent on Yucca Mountain still has to go through Senator Reid. This project has a long ways to go.

MR. BORGIDA:
That's true. Any final thoughts, Mr. Kerekes?

MR. KEREKES:
I think what is fascinating to me in this whole process is that the naysayers don't want to put an alternative on the table. They just say, don't do it. After some 20 years of sound science, inaction is not the course of action we need to leave to future generations. We need to resolve this problem. We need to do it today.

MR. BORGIDA:
The views of Steve Kerekes, of the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Michael Mariotte, of the Nuclear Information Resource Service. Thank you both for joining us. I'm sure we will be discussing this for quite some time to come. Thanks so much.

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