A Sweeter Deal at Yucca Mountain: Congress Should Approve the Nuclear Waste Repository, but It Needs to Offer More Substantial Benefits to Nevada. (Perspectives)

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As this is written in the late winter of 2002, the stage is set for a struggle in Congress over whether to override the impending Nevada veto of President Bush's selection of the YUCCA MOUNTAIN nuclear waste disposal site. The geologic repository that would be built there for spent fuel from nuclear reactors and for highly radioactive defense waste would be the first such facility anywhere in the world. The criticism and doubts raised about the president's decision are cause enough--even for one long convinced that the place for the repository is Nevada--to wonder whether the Yucca Mountain project can be licensed and built.

Where I come out is, yes, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives should overturn the Nevada veto. The accelerated procedures afforded by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 proscribe the filibustering and other parliamentary tactics that otherwise might block this present chance for the greatest progress yet on a nuclear waste problem that has eluded solution for over three decades. But still confronting the project if the Nevada veto is overturned will be the multitudinous law suits that the state is bringing against it. Even if they fall short on the merits, these suits could raise to new levels Nevada's bitterness toward the project, further intensify distrust of the site and how it was chosen, and delay for several years a licensing application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. What is required of Congress in these circumstances is not just an override of the state veto but also major new amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act strengthening the Yucca Mountain project financially, techn ically, and politically.

Congress must, above all, seek a dramatic reconciliation between Washington and the state of Nevada. The goal should be a greater spirit of trust, an end to the lawsuits, substantial direct and collateral economic benefits for Nevada, a stronger influence for the state in the Yucca Mountain project, and a stronger University of Nevada, the state's proudest institution. A possibility to consider would be for congressional leaders to invite the Nevada delegation on Capitol Hill to join with them in a collaborative legislative effort to establish in Nevada a new national laboratory on nuclear waste management.

The Nevadans could look to their own inventiveness in any such initiative, aware of course that the final product will come about from much pulling and hauling from diverse quarters and diverse interests. Here we put forward a few possibilities that might go into the mix. Although the new laboratory would be created as a permanent institution with a broad mandate, central to that mandate in the beginning would be to take over direction of the Yucca Mountain project from the U.S. Department of Energy. Equipped with its own hot cells and other facilities for handling radioactive materials, the laboratory could assume a hands-on role in much of the highend research and development work that is now done by project contractors. Its director, appointed by the president for a fixed term of, say, seven years, and removable only by the president, could be a far stronger administrator than the nuclear waste program has ever had before and one who is allowed wide latitude. Indeed, should the director come to conclude th at not even with the best science and engineering can Yucca Mountain be made a workable site, the director could go to the president and the Congress and recommend its rejection in favor of finding another candidate site, whether in Nevada or elsewhere.

An advisory committee chaired by the Governor of Nevada would follow the laboratory's work closely and be aided in this by a selective, well staffed group similar to the existing congressionally mandated, presidentially appointed Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. Funding of the Yucca Mountain project and other activities under the Energy Department's present Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management would continue to come from the Nuclear Waste Fund and the user fee on nuclear generated electricity, but the new laboratory's activities not covered by this dedicated funding would be dependent on other congressional appropriations. …