WASHINGTON — Ignoring protests from Nevada, the House on Wednesday overwhelmingly embraced President Bush’s decision to bury tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste in volcanic rock 90 miles from Las Vegas.
The lawmakers by a three-to-one margin approved a resolution to override a veto by Nevada of Bush’s plans to develop Yucca Mountain as the central repository for 77,000 tons of used reactor fuel and other highly radioactive waste accumulating in 39 states.
Opponents, including Rep. Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader, argued that it would be too risky — especially after last September’s terrorist attacks — to ship the waste across the country by truck and rail.
But supporters of the radioactive dump argued that the waste poses a greater risk if it remains at more than 130 locations, including at 103 commercial power reactors. Half of the House Democrats joined all but a handful of Republicans in supporting the president’s decision, approving the resolution 306-117.
“Where are my colleagues who are advocates for states’ rights, local control?” asked Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev. He maintained that the Energy Department has failed to ensure that the waste would be kept safely isolated for the expected 10,000 years some of its isotopes will be dangerously radioactive.
In Nevada, Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, said, “We will continue our battle in the U.S. Senate and on parallel track in the courts.” Three lawsuits already are in the courts, challenging the Yucca plan.
After Bush announced in February he would seek a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license for the Yucca facility, Nevada vetoed the selection under a provision of the federal nuclear waste law. Congress must override the veto by late July if Bush’s decision is to stand.
“Certainly the Senate will take note of the overwhelming bipartisan support the Yucca Mountain project has received in the House,” said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. He expressed confidence that the Senate will endorse the project and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will find that it meets standards for health and safety.
Supporters of the site said Yucca Mountain had been studied for two decades at a cost of nearly $7 billion.
It is “scientifically proven safe” and as a single, central storage facility is preferable to “the current hodgepodge” of locations now holding the waste, said House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. His state has 11 power reactors, most of any state, and a growing waste problem.
But Gephardt argued that even with the Nevada dump “we’d still have nuclear waste stored around the country decades from now” and thousands of shipments of nuclear material on highways and rail systems.
Abraham called the concerns about waste transport “baseless allegations” and said that over the past 30 years nuclear waste has been carried more than 1.6 million miles without a harmful release of radiation.
“Currently more than 161 million people live within 75 miles of a nuclear waste storage site,” said Abraham.
Power reactors generate about 2,000 tons of used reactor fuel annually with about 40,000 tons already kept in reactor pools and — in a small number of cases — concrete bunkers. Several thousand tons of waste also is kept at federal facilities as part of the nuclear weapons complex.