President George Bush, on 23 July, 2002, signed a resolution approving Yucca Mountain for development as a nuclear waste disposal facility. Two weeks earlier the US Senate gave its approval for the site, overriding Nevada governor Kenny Guinn's veto.
The presidential go-ahead formally brings an end to the 20-year evaluation and legal process, and enables the Department of Energy (DoE) to prepare and submit a licence application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and to begin developing a transport strategy. It is also a turning point in a long political battle. The establishing of a repository has implications for national security and the weapons programme, as well as energy security. Despite a long campaign by environmental groups and the state of Nevada, the Senate vote was eventually decided by a bipartisan grouping of senators from all over the USA.
An agreement between Senate Democratic and Republican leadership made the motion to proceed with the programme a sole roll-call vote. The fact that only one roll-call vote was held was seen as benefiting both the supporters and the opponents of the facility, according to minority leader Trent Lott. "We don't give senators two ways to vote," he said. He added that the opponents of the repository mustered more votes opposing a move to bring the resolution to the floor than against the resolution itself. Majority leader Tom Daschle's refusal to bring the Yucca Mountain measure to a vote forced Senate Republicans to take action, breaking a Senate tradition in which the majority leader controls which legislation moves to the floor and when.
The DoE is targeting 2004 for its application submittal, and 2010 for the start of disposal operations. If licensed, a series of tunnels 1000 feet below the crest of Yucca Mountain would be used to dispose of 70,000t of spent fuel and high-level radwaste from the defence establishment. The USA currently already has 40,000t of spent fuel inventory.
Future chronology for Yucca Mountain:
• 2003 - Courts likely to rule on first of six lawsuits already filed by Nevada challenging the project.
• 2004 - DoE plans to apply for construction permit. Licensing process before the NRC is likely to take up to four years.
• 2010 - Construction expected to be completed.
• 2010-2034 - Shipments of 3200t of waste a year to arrive at Yucca Mountain.
Not over yet
However, the debate is still not over. Following approval by the Senate, assistant majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada said:
"If they think this is the end, they're badly mistaken. These programmes have to be funded.
I have a little to say about that."
A few hours before Bush signed the Yucca Mountain resolution, the Senate's Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, which is chaired by Reid, earmarked only $336 million for the federal government's nuclear waste management programme for fiscal year 2003. The appropriation is less than two-thirds of the budget requested by the DoE.
The funds comprise $280 million of Defence Department nuclear waste disposal monies and only $56 million from the Nuclear Waste Fund. It is $191 million less than the administration requested for the new fiscal year that begins on 1 October. It is also $39 million less than the nuclear waste management appropriation for the current fiscal year.
John Kane, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said: "Senator Reid's obstructionism in cutting funds for the Yucca Mountain project flies in the face of the will of the American people as manifested in Congress's approval of the Yucca Mountain site."
Kane said the subcommittee's earmark of $56 million from the federal Nuclear Waste Fund - which receives approximately $750 million a year from consumers of nuclear-generated electricity - is tantamount to a "rip-off" of electricity ratepayers.
"To use only seven cents on the dollar for Yucca Mountain and divert the rest of the money that has been committed to support this specific programme for other budget items constitutes an unwarranted taking of consumers' money," he said.
The Senate approval of the site moves the debate over the estimated $56 billion project to the scientific and legal arenas. Nevada's science advisors will use the NRC hearings to argue that the project is technically flawed. And, later this year, attorneys representing Nevada will argue in federal court that the project is illegal.
The state's first two lawsuits are expected to be resolved in a Washington federal appeals court next year. The first one contests the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) decision to design the facility for a safety span of 10,000 years, as opposed to the 1 million years advised by the National Academy of Sciences. The lawsuit also challenges EPA radiation limits for groundwater, air and soil at the site.
The second lawsuit challenges the government's decision to rely on engineered barrier systems to isolate waste from the environment. In 1982 Congress mandated that a geologically safe site be selected.