WASHINGTON — Despite bitter opposition from Nevada’s U.S. senators, legislation was adopted Thursday that would speed up the search for a nuclear waste dump site, with Yucca Mountain on the Nevada Test Site a leading candidate.
Both Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Chic Hecht, R-Nev., said they would continue to oppose the legislation, but added they were satisfied that it contained safeguards that could indefinitely postpone siting the dump in Nevada.
On a 63-30 vote, the Senate gave preliminary approval to the measure, which is attached to a $15.9 billion spending bill for 1988 energy and water resources programs. A final vote on the entire bill is expected to come next week.
“If you’re going to lose, this is the best way to lose,” Hecht said, after he successfully attached five amendments he said will protect Nevada’s interests.
“We won on the merits and we lost on the pork,” said Reid. “When this matter first came out of the Energy and Commerce (Committee) there was one dissenting vote. When it came out of Appropriations there were 10 dissenting votes. So we made great progress.”
They and other opponents charge the legislation will result in an unwise rush to judgement on the three finalist sites now under consideration to host the nation’s first permanent nuclear waste repository: Yucca Mountain, Deaf Smith County, Texas and Hanford, Wash.
Proponents of the legislation said enough information on the three sites already was available to make a sound decision and that further studies would waste billions of dollars.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La., would accelerate by about five years the schedule for picking a site for the waste repository, needed to hold thousands of tons of radioactive waste from the nation’s 108 commercial nuclear power plants.
The facility, to be built in a deep underground rock formation, is supposed to prevent waste from leaking into the environment for thousands of years.
Under current law, the department is supposed to conduct scientific studies simultaneously at all three finalist sites to determine the best one for a waste repository. A final recommendation would go to the president by 1994.
But Johnston’s legislation would require the department to select one site by January 1989 for detailed testing to evaluate its suitability, including the drilling of a deep shaft. If the first-choice site proved unsatisfactory, the department then would consider the second and third finalist sites.
“This is the most critical environment decision in the history of our nation,” said Sen. John Breaux, D-La., chairman of a Senate subcommittee on nuclear regulation and an opponent of the legislation. “We should not make it until we have the critical information we need.”
Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., ranking Republican on the nuclear regulation subcommittee and a strong proponent of nuclear power, charged the legislation contained “code language” — restrictive provisions — that would virtually guarantee the selection of the Nevada site.
Reid said he was not surprised by the vote because of Johnston’s clout as chairman of the Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee.
“We’re up again a man who is chairman of a very powerful committee and he passed the largesse around,” Reid said.
“The victory we had today was on court review,” Reid said after the bill was amended to leave waste site litigation in the courts. Johnston had sought to establish a special review body to dispose of court claims, a body Reid called a “kangaroo court.”
“It means all the litigation we have filed will be heard by the courts. That’s a big victory for us,” Reid said.
Also, Johnston’s consenting earlier this week to permitting Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz., to sit on the conference committee when differences between House and Senate versions of the bill are ironed out will work to Nevada’s advantage because the Arizonan is an ally, Reid said.
Among Hecht’s amendments, DOE is required to conduct a feasibility study on reprocessing nuclear waste, instead of indefinitely storing it underground.
“I think the key amendment on reprocessing will eventually stop a nuclear waste repository,” he said. “It requires a study before action is taken to spend money on the repository.”
The study, he said, will prove that recycling is a more realistic option for disposing of the waste.
His other amendments were:
• To provide for an office for the study of subseabed disposal of nuclear waste,To provide funding for subseabed research
• To provide funding for transportation safety improvements in the state the repository is located in,
• To require a study into the effects of an earthquake fracture in the Yucca Mountain area.
The earthquake study alone may prove enough to derail the plan, Hecht said.
During debate Johnston argued the current site selection process for the first waste repository is too expensive and time-consuming.