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Debate Over US Nuclear Power Plant Waste Intensifies - 2002-03-07

U.S. government plans to set up a central nuclear waste disposal site in the western state of Nevada have sparked a fierce debate between state and federal officials. President Bush has expressed support for the Yucca Mountain site, but there is opposition from the governor of Nevada, a member of Mr. Bush's Republican party. Political observers say the dispute could have a wider political impact.

For decades, debate has raged over what to do with tons of radioactive waste and spent fuel from more than 100 commercial nuclear power plants across the United States. Today, that waste is stored at sites in 34 U.S. states.

In 1982, Congress passed a law called the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. It required scientific studies of places where nuclear waste could be safely stored. Those studies were not yet complete when, in 1987, Congress amended the law and designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada, as the sole site for consideration.

In February, President Bush sent a formal recommendation to Congress that Yucca Mountain be the nation's repository for nuclear waste. He called it important for U.S. national and energy security. Thus began the latest chapter in an emotion-filled debate involving Nevada, environmental and citizens groups, the federal government, Congress, and power companies.

Nevada Governor Tony Guinn has until April 16 to veto President Bush's recommendation. He has vowed to do so, adding that Nevadans remember the government's nuclear testing program in the 1950s, and they are not happy memories.

"They had the atomic bomb testing in development and they [the government] said it was safe underground, and we said fine, and then they said it was safe to come above ground and put it in the atmosphere, and it was deadly to the people in and about our great state, Utah and other areas," he said. "So we have had that experience, and we're not going to take anybody, whether it's a government we support. We just have a disagreement, and we want sound science."

Congress will have 90 days to override Governor Guinn's veto. This would require majority votes in both the House and Senate.

Groups like the American Public Power Association are making sure they are heard on Capitol Hill.

"It's important that we settle this issue so we don't have a multitude of storage sites around the country and so that the nuclear portion of our industry can have some certainty about that issue and also for existing plants and potentially for new plants," said the group's spokesman Joe Nipper. "And we do support the administration's designation of Yucca mountain as that site."

The government says radioactive waste will be stored in specially-engineered containers, in solid rock, more than 300 meters below the desert surface. Geological barriers will help create safe storage for tens of thousands of years with little chance of radioactive leakage into underground water supplies.

However, opponents of the plan dispute this. They say the repository - located 160 kilometers northwest of the city of Las Vegas - is volcanically unstable, with high potential for contamination of underground water supplies. Opponents also point to risks in moving thousands of tons of waste across the country to Nevada, something the government says poses no danger.

Anna Aurilo is legislative director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. She says 20 years of studies costing billions of dollars have left too many unanswered questions, and says the process has been driven by politics business interests.

"All along, the process for deciding what to do with this very radioactive waste has been driven by political expediency, and by the campaign contributions of the nuclear industry, rather than being driven by sound science and what is best for public health and safety," she said.

Proponents argue the decision was based on "sound science", a requirement President Bush set down during his 2000 presidential campaign. Yucca Mountain, they say, is the right solution at the right time, with advantages that outweigh the risks.

"If we don't resolve this issue of how to store the waste from these plants, we won't be able to build any new nuclear plants, so it's absolutely essential we solve the waste problem so to speak, just come to a conclusion and a program in dealing with the waste on a more permanent basis," said Mr. Nipper.

There are already political repercussions from the Yucca controversy. President Bush won Nevada by four percentage points in the 2000 presidential election. Political analysts say his decision on Yucca mountain, which 80 percent of Nevadans oppose, could swing the state back to democratic party candidates in this year's congressional elections.

In Congress, meanwhile, various interest groups representing both sides are gearing up to battle for congressional votes when the time comes to consider an override of Nevada governor Guinn's expected veto.