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Energy secretary picks Nevada site nation's nuclear waste

Thursday, January 10, 2002

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Addressing the most troubling issue facing the nuclear industry, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on Thursday chose Yucca Mountain in Nevada to be the nation's burial site for thousands of tons of nuclear waste.

Abraham concluded the site 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas was "scientifically sound and suitable" as a repository for highly radioactive used reactor fuel now kept at commercial reactors in 31 states, a department spokesman said.

A final administration decision will be up to President Bush, who has championed the need for a central disposal site for the waste and is expected to seek a federal license for the site in the coming months.

"The secretary made his decision on sound science," said Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis.

Nevada officials, who have fought the proposed dump for more than a decade, have vowed to use every means available to keep the waste out of the state. They argue that despite 13 years of intense scientific study the federal government has not adequately shown that the public can be protected from future radiation.

Abraham, in notifying Nevada's governor of the decision, said "sound science and compelling national interests" as well as growing concern about nuclear materials since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks require wastes to be consolidated at a central site.

"There are compelling national interests that require us to complete the siting process and move forward with the development of a (waste) repository," Abraham wrote Nevada Gov. Kenneth Guinn.

Earlier in the day White House adviser Karl Rove telephoned Guinn, a Republican and strong opponent of the Yucca project, to attempt to soften the political concerns.

But even a presidential decision is not expected to end the bitter debate over siting of a national waste dump. The final word probably will come from Congress.

Under a 1982 law, which directed the government to assume responsibility for the commercial nuclear industry's highly radioactive waste, only Congress can override the expected Nevada veto.

The site, which still faces a myriad of legal challenges from Nevada, is not expected to be ready to accept waste until 2010 at the earliest. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also must issue a license, a process that could take several years.

The government has spent $6.8 billion to study the Nevada site since 1983. After reviewing three sites, Congress settled on Yucca Mountain in 1987 as the only location to be pursued.

The Nevada site is a mountain of volcanic rock formed 13 million years ago. For nearly two decades, scientists have worked to determine whether its geology, volcanic history and hydrology are suitable for storing materials that will remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

Power utilities have promoted the Yucca Mountain site as the most secure and safest place to put the used reactor fuel now kept at reactor sites. More than 40,000 tons of wastes already have built up at the plants with 2,000 tons added each year.

The site, if finally approved and licensed, is expected to hold up to 77,000 tons of waste, buried in a labyrinth of bunkers 900 feet beneath the surface.

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