Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn (R) filed a lawsuit against President Bush after he endorsed a site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas as the final resting-place for thousands of tons of radioactive material from nuclear powerplants.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on Feb. 15, the day the President accepted the Dept. of Energy's recommendation to built a nuclear waste storage vault at Yucca Mountain. It would be used to store more than 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, high-level radioactive waste, and excess plutonium now stored at 131 sites in 39 states. Some $8 billion has already been spent at the site. Construction costs could reach $80 billion. Federal officials have set the opening for 2010.
DOE and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham were also named in the lawsuit. The action challenges the department's decision in December to change its siting guidelines. "They couldn't prove it was a sound geological site, so they changed the rules," says Greg Bortolin, Guinn's press secretary. "Now they are saying they can engineer the safety," he says.
DOE announced in December that the site would require engineered barriers in addition to its natural geological barriers to contain the waste. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act stipulates that to be selected a site must have the geology to contain the waste without additions, however.
Guinn and other critics worry that the radioactive material may leak and contaminate the surrounding area and its groundwater. They also worry that transporting waste from powerplants to Yucca Mountain presents risks to the public.
Gov. Guinn claims the state should have had 30 days to review the environmental impact statement, which was released just hours before the President made his endorsement, says Bortolin. "It contains 300 studies left to be completed, yet the secretary of energy is confident the site is safe,'' he says.
DOE denies that it is required by law to allow the governor to review the eis.
The next step is for Gov. Guinn to veto the president's recommendation, which he will do within 60 days, according to Bortolin. Once he vetoes the plan, the decision will be left up to Congress, which needs only a majority vote.
Nevada has friends in the Senate. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has said he will block the project from coming to the floor for a vote, says Bortolin. "We hope we have enough clout in the Senate to prevent it from happening," he says.
The site also must receive a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license. Abraham recommended that the President endorse the site, saying that technically and scientifically Yucca Mountain is fully suitable. He also said that the arguments against it do not rise to a level that would outweigh the case for going forward.
But environmentalists and others worry about the technical issues, says Anna Aurilo, legislative director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Washington, D.C. "We feel the radioactive material will leak into the ground and into the water in the near term, in the next 1,000 years or so. The data supports that," she says. The group wants an independent commission that involves all segments of the population to make the decision. "Let's make it a more democratic issue," she says.
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (D) blasted Bush for his decision. "President Bush has dropped the equivalent of 100,000 dirty bombs on America. I say this because [the plan] would require shipment of nuclear waste on 100,000 trucks or 20,000 rail cars through 43 states," he said in a statement.