80,000 tons of nuclear waste may head for Nevada

  WASHINGTON, D.C. - Thousands of casks of highly radioactive nuclear waste would begin crossing the West by rail and truck as early as 1998 under a proposal that recently gained preliminary approval.


The proposal hasn't yet hit the floor of the House or Senate. But the Senate Energy Committee, in a 12-6 vote, approved creating a temporary repository for the waste close to the Department of Energy's permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.


The vote was an attempt to solve the problem of where to store up to 80,000 tons of spent nuclear reactor fuel - some of the most dangerous material on earth.


But the controversial effort, sponsored by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has prompted threats of a filibuster by Nevada's two senators and a veto from the Clinton administration.


Even Republicans supporting the measure are uncomfortable with debating a nuclear waste bill in an election year, noting the risks of sending the material across 43 states.


"Anyone who's traveled on Interstate 70 knows it's absolutely treacherous," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo. "Even in dry weather you regularly have trucks out of control hitting the escape ramps or crashing and rolling over." He voted for the bill but wants funds to train local emergency-response teams.


The spent fuel now is stored mostly in pools of water at the nation's 109 commercial nuclear reactors. Nuclear utilities want to get rid of it. Otherwise, they will have to ask their customers to keep paying to store it on site. "They built those plants with the understanding they would not be long-term storage sites," said Steve Unglesbee, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry's trade group.


The battle over the waste dates to 1982, when Congress passed a law directing the Department of Energy to build a permanent storage site by 1998. Amendments passed in 1987 focused the effort on Yucca Mountain. But few think the deadline can be met due to project mismanagement, engineering problems and opposition from Nevada.


Nuclear utilities, which have paid $11 million into a nuclear waste disposal fund since 1982, are lobbying lawmakers hard to send the material to Nevada.


The 1982 law stipulated that Nevada couldn't be the site of both permanent and temporary repositories. The legislation offered by Craig would undo that and essentially pile up the casks of material at the front door of the permanent site.


"Congress must recognize its responsibility to set a clear and definitive nuclear material disposal policy," Craig said. Like many Repubican senators, Craig is looking to deposit nuclear waste outside of his state. He came under criticism last year for not fighting the decision to ship waste to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory and this has become an issue in his re-election bid (HCN, 11/13/95).


Environmentalists and other opponents say moving the spent fuel to Nevada poses special risks to the West.


"It's like putting Western states at the end of the bowling alley," said Fred Millar, coordinator for the Nuclear Waste Citizen's Coalition in Washington. "The utilities just want to be able to say they solved the waste problem by moving it out of their communities."


The waste would be shipped in giant steel and lead casks. While final routes haven't been determined, Nevada officials using Department of Energy computer programs determined several likely routes. For example, 2,347 truck casks from Florida and Pennsylvania reactors would be shipped over 30 years, crossing Colorado on I-70 from Kansas to Utah. Another 180 rail casks would be shipped on tracks passing Pueblo, Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction, and north from Denver to Cheyenne.


The project would require about 15,000 total shipments of reactor fuel, or about 300 a year through 2030.


While Craig's bill won approval from the Energy Committee, it still will probably need 60 votes to override a filibuster planned by Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, both Nevada Democrats. Moreover, the White House threatened to veto any measure to build a temporary site in Nevada.


Companion legislation in the U.S. House sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., hasn't been debated yet. House and Senate negotiators made $85 million available for construction of a temporary repository in a 1996 energy and water spending bill.


* Adriel Bettelheim





The writer works in Washington, D.C., for The Denver Post.