The U.S. Senate has approved by voice vote the government's plan to create the nation's first permanent nuclear waste storage facility in the western state of Nevada. The bill, which has already passed the House, now goes to President Bush for his signature.
The vote caps decades of political debate over where to put the nation's nuclear waste that has been building up at power plants and defense sites in nearly 40 states.
The plan calls for burying tens of thousands of metric tons of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert.
Opponents including Nevada's two Senators argued that transporting nuclear waste to the site on the nation's highways and rail lines poses security and safety problems.
Senator John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada, said, "We need to think about terrorism and the possible ways and uses, and the attacks on these nuclear canisters traveling across our country. Hijacking or blowing up a truck of nuclear waste would be an easy way to devastate one of our metropolitan areas."
Supporters of Yucca Mountain plan argued that the nuclear industry has a history of safe waste shipments and that wastes will be in containers designed to withstand severe accidents. Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the Energy Committee, noted, "We have moved 2,700 shipments in 30 years, not a single harmful release of radioactivity."
Nevada's Republican Governor, Kenny Guinn, vetoed the Yucca Mountain proposal earlier this year shortly after President Bush endorsed it. That left the issue to be determined by the U.S. Congress. Two months after the House approved the measure, Senate Republicans Tuesday forced a vote on the matter over the objections of Democratic leaders.
Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota accused the Bush administration and its powerful allies in the nuclear industry of driving the bill through the Senate without adequate debate. "We are being forced to decide this issue prematurely, without sufficient scientific information, because this administration is doing the bidding of special interests that simply want to make the deadly waste they had generated somebody else's problem," he said. "That is wrong."
But Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said the time had come for lawmakers to put the issue to rest. "The fact is, we must deal with 45,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, and more on the way," he made clear. "The bottom line is that if this problem is not going to disappear, and the world will not become any safer by deferring this problem. We either deal with this problem today or we pass it on to future generations. That is not an acceptable option."
Opponents say they have just begun to fight, and will revisit the issue in the months and years to come.
The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site is expected to open in 2010 and cost nearly $60 billion. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must approve a license for the facility before it begins operating.