The New York Times The New York Times Politics May 9, 2002  

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House Backs Plan to Store Atomic Waste in Nevada


WASHINGTON, May 8 ó The House voted overwhelmingly today to go ahead with a nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, brushing off arguments of environmental and terrorist risks.

Representative Billy Tauzin, the Louisiana Republican who is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said adoption of the plan would "get our nuclear industry back on a safe path" and reduce dependence on foreign oil.


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Representative Charlie Norwood, Republican of Georgia, said, "Clearly it is in the interests of this country to construct one permanent, highly secure facility."

According to the Department of Energy, about 80,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste is stored at 131 above-ground sites in 39 states. But several opponents contend that transporting the waste on the highways will invite hijackings by terrorists. Representative Joe Baca, Democrat of California, said, "We will create thousands of weapons for terrorists." Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, said, "Al Qaeda had nuclear at the very top of its terrorist targets."

The vote was 306 to 117 to override Gov. Kenny Guinn of Nevada, who had rejected the Bush administration's plan to ship nuclear waste from all over the country to Yucca Mountain beginning in 2010. Voting in favor were 203 Republicans, 102 Democrats and 1 independent; voting against were 13 Republicans, 103 Democrats and 1 independent.

The vote is expected to be much closer in the Senate, where the plan is likely to be approved in June or July, although Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic whip, said, "We haven't given up."

To round up Senate votes, opponents of the waste site are emphasizing the dangers of moving nuclear waste through 45 states, an argument made futilely today by Representative Richard A. Gephardt, Democrat of Missouri, the House minority leader. Mr. Gephardt predicted derailments and other accidents.

"It makes no sense to have all of this material traveling across the country by truck and rail," he said. Instead of isolating risk, he added, "Yucca Mountain spreads it around." Representative Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Texas, foresaw "mobile Chernobyls crossing the country."

Their argument was challenged by Representative John Shimkus, Republican of Illinois, who said there had already been 3,000 shipments of nuclear waste. "Not one of those shipments threatened the environment or public safety," Mr. Shimkus said.

Mr. Tauzin spoke generously of two critics from Nevada: Representatives Jim Gibbons, a Republican, and Shelley Berkley, a Democrat. But he said other foes just "basically oppose nuclear energy."

He urged the House to vote for the Yucca Mountain site and "settle the waste issue."

"Help secure America," he said.

Opponents said Nevada was being victimized by a "not in my backyard" approach. Representative Markey said other states that did not want the waste had dealt Nevada the "nuclear queen of spades."

House proponents insisted that for 20 years, scientific studies had shown that Yucca Mountain was a safe repository. No lawmakers argued directly that the waste should simply be sent out of their backyards. But several lawmakers argued that the material should not be allowed to remain near the Great Lakes because they were a source of drinking water for millions of people. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, emphasized that one reason he supported the measure was that his state "has the most nuclear power plants of any state in our union."

While Representative Joe L. Barton, Republican of Texas, said adoption of the Yucca Mountain site would enable Nevada to reclaim its "nuclear heritage," Representative Berkley said Nevadans wanted none of that heritage because the government lied to them in the 1950's when it told them there was no danger from atomic bomb tests. She said that many Nevadans had died of cancer and that the government was now "asking us to trust them like our parents and grandparents did."

Jim Matheson, Democrat of Utah, said many in his state, including his father, had died of cancers from radiation carried downwind from Nevada. "I can tell you," Mr. Matheson said, "as a son of a downwinder and a congressman who represents thousands of sick, dying and widowed victims of our nuclear testing that the federal record on this issue has been appalling."

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In Depth: Congress

Chronology of Developments on Nuclear Waste Storage (May 8, 2002)

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House Panel Votes to Put Repository at Yucca Mountain (April 24, 2002)


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