A Contentious Bill Passes Senate (em Two Votes Shy of Blocking a Veto
Recently passed by the U.S. Senate, nuclear waste bill S. 104 lies mired in quicksand, facing a promised presidential veto, not to mention attacks from senators representing those states targeted for possible waste storage sites. Disposal of waste from the nation's nuclear generating plants has turned into possibly the most contentious issue on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) showed how serious he was about nuclear waste disposal last February when he held up confirmation of Energy Secretary Federico Peña. He would not allow the appointment to move forward until he received assurances from the Clinton Administration that it would consider safe interim storage for the high-level radioactive waste.
On April 15, the Senate passed The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1997, S. 104, by a vote of 65-34. Murkowski, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, had proposed the bill, which calls for interim storage of nuclear waste now stored at 80 locations in 41 states. The waste would be stored at the Nevada Test Site, which had previously been used to explode nuclear weapons. It would remain at the temporary site until a location for permanent storage (em presently proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nevada (em could be made ready.
Nevada's two Democrat Senators, Richard Bryan and Harry Reid, remain adamant that their state (which has no working nuclear plants) should not take on the risks associated with nuclear waste storage. In fact, when Murkowski scheduled April 8 for debate on S. 104, he had to maneuver to cut off a filibuster threatened by the Nevada senators.
And the Office of Management and Budget has advised in a "Statement of Administration Policy" that in its present form, the President would veto the bill.
Meanwhile, a federal circuit court recently has denied a motion by the Department of Energy to dismiss a lawsuit filed against it by 46 state agencies and 36 nuclear utilities on behalf of ratepayers who have paid more than $13 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund. The lawsuit seeks a court order to compel the federal government to take possession of waste for interim storage by 1998. However, even if Yucca Mountain is approved for storage (em it would not be ready to store waste until approximately 2015. On April 30, the court put the proceeding on the fast track. It ruled that future filings in the waste lawsuit will be treated as petitions to compel DOE to comply with a previous court decision finding that DOE's obligation to store nuclear waste begins Jan. 31, 1998.
Murkowski vs. Clinton
In the lingo of Capitol Hill, "debate on the motion to proceed" on S. 104 began in earnest on the afternoon of April 7. On that day, Murkowski offered significant changes to his bill to address concerns expressed by colleagues. Murkowski offered the following amendments:
• Extend the schedule for siting and licensing an interim facility (to June 30, 2003, if Yucca is viable, and June 30, 2005, if it is not);
• Require 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 "mobile Chernobyl." Murkowski disputes that moniker.
"The fact is that there have been 2,500 shipments of used fuel across this country in the last twenty years," Murkowski said in his April 7 statement. Those shipments will continue, according to Murkowski (em "by truck, by train, by barge, by boat."
On April 10 the Senate approved an amendment presented by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) that would prevent the Savannah River nuclear facility from being considered as a permanent storage site should Yucca Mountain be derailed. The Senate also voted to give the same exemption to the Oak Ridge reservation in Tennessee. Language in S. 104 partly prompted the amendments, which would allow the building of one central, temporary site, or another site chosen by the president.
Also on April 10, in the House of Representatives, Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Ed Towns (D-N.Y.), along with 56 other members of both parties, had introduced "The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1997," H.R. 1270. The bill is similar to legislation supported by almost 300 representatives in the 104th Congress. t
Articles found on this page are available to Internet subscribers only. For more information about obtaining a username and password, please call our Customer Service Department at 1-800-368-5001.