US Energy Secretary approves controversial nuclear waste disposal scheme

The US’s Energy Department has formally recommended a controversial plan to utilise Nevada’s Yucca mountain, 90km north west of Las Vegas, as the country’s permanent storage facility for radioactive waste.

The intention is to safely store 70,000 tonnes of radioactive waste deep inside the mountain for 10,000 years.

The US$40 billion plan, which follows US$4.5billion and 14 years spent studying the implications, was immediately condemned by Nevada politicians, environmentalists and the Senate majority leader, Democrat Tom Daschle.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham claimed that the Yucca mountain would be a secure repository for the waste, but opponents drew attention to a preliminary study late last year that called the study of the Yucca mountain site a “failed scientific process”.

Scientists at the Institute for Environment and Energy Research have warned that the chemical conditions at Yucca mountain would corrode the waste containers and cause radioactive material to leak into the groundwater inside the mountain, subsequently flowing downward and coming to rest under the desert.

Secretary Abraham wrote formally to Nevada’s Republican governor Kenny Guinn after an initial phone call explaining the decision. His letter stated: “There are compelling national interests that require us to complete the siting process and move forward with the development of a repository as Congress mandated almost 20 years ago.”

The site will not be operational until at least 2010, but the plan is being expedited in the wake of September 11, which raised concerns about the terrorist threat to the US’s stockpiles of radioactive materials. The country has 103 existing nuclear reactors and vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons requiring storage.

However, Republican Senator Shelley Berkley dubbed Abraham’s decision “grossly irresponsible”, adding: “Furthermore, the secretary’s claim that the repository would further our national security is completely mistaken. In fact, the transportation of nuclear waste through 43 states, and the construction of a single identifiable repository outside the fastest growing metropolitan region in the country are gross and needless risks to our national security.”

Governor Guinn has vehemently voiced his opposition to the recommendation, telling the press: “I am damn disappointed in this decision and [Secretary Abraham] can expect my veto. I told him I think this decision stinks, the whole process stinks, and we’ll see him in court.”

If President Bush approves the recommendation but Governor Guinn vetoes it, the matter will go before Congress where a majority vote must be taken within 90 days. The Republican-controlled House is likely to approve the recommendation, but the Senate, where the two parties are evenly balanced, may prove a stumbling block. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission would also have to license the site.

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