WASHINGTON -- President Bush approved Nevada's Yucca Mountain on Friday as the site for long-term disposal of thousands of tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste.
In a letter to congressional leaders, Bush said a central disposal site for as much as 77,000 tons of waste that is building up at sites across the country "is necessary to protect public safety, health and this nation's security."
He noted that Nevada was expected to file a protest that will leave the final decision on whether to proceed up to Congress.
Nevada officials have argued that the government can't ensure the public will be protected over the thousands of years the waste will remain dangerous. The site is 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing urban areas in the country.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Bush of breaking a campaign promise in which to told Nevadans he would base a decision on Yucca Mountain on "sound science not politics."
"Today President Bush broke this promise," said Reid.
But Bush said his decision "is the culmination of two decades of intense scientific scrutiny" and that he is certain the science is sound. The plan calls for putting the waste, mostly used reactor fuel rods from commercial power plants, into volcanic rock 950 feet below the desert surface.
Bush followed the recommendation of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham who in a telephone call with reporters said, "It is my strong belief the science supports the safe use of this repository."
"We feel strongly this make sense to the nation," said Abraham, noting that Yucca Mountain would provide a place not only for commercial waste but also used nuclear fuel from the Navy and high-level waste from nuclear weapons sites.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., whose state has 11 commercial power reactors, said the Yucca Mountain facility "should be completed without further delay." He said he is certain the site "is safe, secure and viable."
But House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, expressed concern about the thousands of waste shipments that will have to crisscross the country. With most nuclear power plants in the eastern third of the country, many of those shipment move through Missouri.
Abraham said the waste can be transported safely, and "it poses a greater risks to the communities where it is" now kept since many of the power plants are near urban areas.
Congress will have to decide, by majority vote of both houses, whether to uphold the decision or side with Nevada and find another site for the more than 40,000 tons of waste now kept at commercial reactors in 34 states as well as waste kept at defense sites.
The president's action marks a major step in the decades-long dispute over what to do with the waste generated by commercial nuclear power plants and by the government nuclear weapons program. The waste at commercial reactors is growing by 2,000 tons a year.
Unless Congress sides with Nevada, the Energy Department's next step will be to get a license for the Yucca facility from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a process that could take several years. No waste is expected to be shipped to the site before 2010 and even that target is likely to slip.