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    Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste repository

    State's Yucca fight shifts to Senate

    Despite House vote, Reid is 'cautiously optimistic'

    By Benjamin Grove


    May 9, 2002

    WASHINGTON -- Now that the House has given the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository its approval with a 306-117 vote Wednesday, the project could move quickly through the Senate, where Nevada leaders hope to derail it.

    Despite the overwhelming House vote, Sen Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he is "cautiously optimistic that we will prevail" in the Senate.

    House leaders acted quickly on the resolution to override Gov. Kenny Guinn's veto and approve putting a the repository in Yucca Mountain. Nevada leaders have always said the best chance to stop the project is in the Senate, where Reid is majority whip.

    The Senate will take it up quickly: Three Energy Committee hearings are scheduled during the next two weeks, and Reid said the bill could come to the Senate floor as early as late June.

    Reid and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said the defeat in the House would not deter their quiet, long-shot lobbying effort in the Senate, where they need 51 votes against the controversial project.

    Reid said he is relying on Ensign to corral about 12 Republicans, hinting that there could be as many as 39 Democrats willing to vote against Yucca Mountain.

    "If we get a dozen Republicans, we'll be in good shape," Reid said Wednesday.

    Gov. Kenny Guinn said this morning on "DayOne Las Vegas" that the vote was a success because Yucca opponents picked up more votes than they started with.

    "(The vote count) did improve," he said. "That means more and more people are listening."

    Guinn said he is more optimistic of the state's chances to stop the dump in the courts rather than in the Senate.

    "I'm not going to say we're going to win in the Senate because this is a high-powered political issue and we're a small state," he said.

    But with the clock ticking, Ensign's task seems nearly impossible. He would not say whether he has managed to convince more than Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., to oppose a Yucca dump. Ensign in the last six weeks has met with all but "a handful" of the Republican senators, trying to raise doubts about the nuclear waste project. Aside from Campbell, none is on record opposing the dump. A few have agreed to be "undecided," Ensign said.

    "I still think we have a very difficult task, but we are going to work it right up until the very end," he said.

    Most observers expect the Senate to approve the repository.

    After the vote, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham reasserted his argument that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- not Congress -- should have the final say about whether Yucca Mountain is constructed. The NRC would be responsible for reviewing an Energy Department application to license the waste site.

    "Nothing that the opponents of Yucca Mountain have presented, including baseless allegations regarding the transportation of nuclear waste, rises to the burden of proof that requires Congress to stop the process before a thorough review of the site is conducted by the independent experts at the NRC," Abraham said in a statement.

    House GOP leaders wanted to push the Yucca resolution into the Senate with an overwhelming vote.

    Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a driving force behind Yucca in the House, said 306 votes in favor -- including 102 Democrats and independent Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia -- were 30 or 40 more than he anticipated.

    Barton predicted at least 58 or 59 senators would support Yucca.

    The House vote should be another wake-up call for Nevada lawmakers to relinquish some of their opposition to the dump so that they can begin negotiating for cash and project terms, he said.

    "You can say, 'We don't want it, and we don't like it, but if you are going to have it here, we want points A, B, C and D addressed,' " Barton told the Sun.

    Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., said he was disappointed just 13 Republicans voted against Yucca; he had hoped for as many as 20.

    "There was a great deal of arm-twisting in the last few minutes" by Barton and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the House Energy and Commerce chairman, Gibbons said.

    In the broader scope, Nevada's two congressmen were overmatched by the nuclear energy industry, which has spent millions of dollars in recent months on lobbying and advertising, Gibbons said.

    The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's top trade group, helped organize lobbyists, who swarmed House offices in recent weeks, and paid for print and television advertisements in national media outlets.

    "We did well to get the votes we did," Gibbons said. "These are trying times for Nevada. This was a fateful day."

    At issue in the House on Wednesday was a one-sentence resolution on whether to approve Yucca Mountain.

    Congress will handle Yucca budget issues and oversight, but the vote on the simple legislation was the final opportunity for the House to offer its verdict on the nuclear waste project that dates from 1982.

    One by one, repository advocates -- a number of whom have nuclear plants in their districts -- came to the floor to tout the virtues of Yucca. For years, they have been eager to ship out waste that has been piling up in their districts.

    "We need to finish the job today," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said.

    Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., stressed that Congress did not have the final word on Yucca. Scientists and other Nuclear Regulatory Commission experts who would license the site, should be making the final decision. "This is just another step in the process," Dingell said.

    Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga., agreed. "The vote today does not lock us in forever. Now is not the time to jump ship."

    Gibbons and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., drew on their allies for help during the 3 1/2-hour debate. Of the 117 lawmakers who voted against Yucca, 103 were Democrats, and independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont. Nevada officials hope his vote could influence Sen. James Jeffords, another independent, who has voiced support for Yucca.

    Rep. James Matheson, D-Utah, said he did not want waste shipments hauled through his state. He said he did not trust the government to be honest about the risks of storing nuclear waste because it had not been upfront about the risks of nuclear bomb tests in Nevada during the Cold War. Many Utah residents suffered various health problems as "downwinders" Matheson said.

    "The federal government told us we were safe, but it knew we were at risk," Matheson said.

    Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said the Energy Department's site recommendation was simply based on bad science. She said she would vote against the project even though her state is home to nuclear waste.

    "I don't mind standing up with the few and the brave," Lee said.

    Berkley disputed GOP leaders who said the House vote gave them a giant push heading into the Senate.

    "Naturally it is disappointing to lose such an important vote by a large margin," Berkley said. "But by garnering more than 100 votes, we were able to defy expectations, deny the nuclear industry the huge win that they wanted, and slow the momentum on the bill as it moves to the Senate."

    After the vote, nuclear energy industry officials praised the House asdejected environmental groups said they would turn their attention to the Senate.

    "Lawmakers in the House have demonstrated their commitment to a solution to the nation's growing nuclear waste storage problem -- now it's up to the Senate to follow their lead," said Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which actively supports a Yucca repository. Las Vegas' chapter severed its ties with the parent group over the issue.

    The House vote signaled not just support for a waste project, but nuclear power in general, Nuclear Energy Institute President and Chief Executive Joe Colvin said.

    "The House of Representatives today affirmed the future of a vital national energy and environmental project at Yucca Mountain, Nevada," Colvin said. "The House, in a clear bipartisan signal to the U.S. Senate, supports the science-based decision to build a national repository 1,000 feet under the Nevada desert, and recognizes the safety and security of the transportation system that will move nuclear byproducts from 39 states to the facility."

    Public Citizen, the Washington-based environmental and consumer advocacy group, continues to coordinate grass-roots campaigns with local groups in about 20 states to sway the Senate, Public Citizen activist Lisa Gue said. The organization was encouraged by a handful of undecided lawmakers who voted in to oppose Yucca Mountain.

    "We just have to demand that a more responsible decision be made by the Senate than was made in the House," Gue said.

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