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Nuclear Waste Debate Simmers on Capital Hill

Fortnightly Magazine - June 1 1997

licensing of the interim facility by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under existing regulations, with no exceptions;

• Shorten the license term of the interim

facility to 40 years and reduce its initial capacity to 33,100 metric tons (from Murkowski's proposed 60,000 metric tons); and

• Preempt any state and local laws (not federal) that remain inconsistent with the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act and Hazardous Materials Transportation Act.

Murkowski had offered those changes to help "veto-proof" the bill, and the Senate approved the changes. But on that same day, the Clinton Administration came out with more objections.

The administration objected to provisions in the bill that would stop the Environmental Protection Agency from setting acceptable radiation release standards. Murkowski acquiesced, and said he would provide for the EPA to set radiation standards for the permanent repository. S. 104 had set a 100-millirem dose standard, subject to review to protect public safety. Now the bill mandates full EPA involvement in setting risk-based radiation protection standards likely to produce a standard of 25 to 30 millirems. Finally, critics were irked that S. 104 did not require the NRC in its Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate the impacts of transporting fuel to the storage facility. So Murkowski added a provision clearly requiring a generic analysis of the impacts of transporting used fuel to the storage facility.

Since President Clinton had vowed to veto S. 104, the vote took on an added importance: Could Murkowski muster the two-thirds vote needed (in each House) to override a Presidential veto? The vote came in at 65-34, with absentee Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.V.) saying he would vote "no." Thus Murkowski appears two votes shy of a veto override. However, Murkowski remains confident he can convince one of two Republicans voting against the measure (Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Daniel R. Coats of Indiana) to switch. At the same time, the Nevada Senators also said they had promises of switches from among the 12 Democratic senators voting for the bill, which would uphold a veto.

Nevada vs. The World

The Nevada senators opposed to the bill have said the waste should stay where it is now (em at temporary on-site locations licensed by the NRC (em at the nation's 109 nuclear power reactors. However, Murkowski does not believe that on-site reactor storage ponds were built for long-term storage. He has pointed to reports that radioactive tritium gas is

leaking into Suffolk County, Long Island's ground water from a spent-fuel storage pond at the Brookhaven lab. Murkowski is a firm believer in the need for a centralized storage location. Also, the storage pools are filling up (em by 1998, 23 pools in 14 states will be unable to take any more spent fuel.

On April 10, the Senate voted 72-24 to table an amendment to the bill presented by the Nevada senators. The amendment would have required separate approval by the governors of those states that straddled any transportation route for waste moving to Nevada. The senators refer to the risks associated with transporting the waste to Nevada as