The US Senate has passed a bill designed to address the US waste problem. But the margin of victory, 64 votes to 34 is not large enough to prevent the White House from vetoing it.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act 2000, sponsored by Republican Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, is significantly different from the bill he tried to introduce to the Senate last year, which never made the floor. In a concession to the White House, the new bill includes an amendment which gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) power to set radiological limits at any permanent waste repository. The EPA will have to consult with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the National Academy of Sciences, if it wants to issue standards before June 2001. Congress would also have to approve any standards. Previous versions of the waste bill gave the authority to set standards to the NRC.
The bill would also allow the Department of Energy (DoE) to begin to accept spent fuel at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada in 2007, no later than 18 months after the NRC issues a construction licence. There is also no longer a provision requiring the DoE to assume title to spent fuel now stored at power stations. The bill also aims to settle litigation filed by utility companies against the DoE for its failure to begin to take spent fuel by January 1998, a date set in the 1983 Nuclear Policy Waste Act.
The White House is still likely to veto the bill. It sees the conditions attached to the EPA’s ability to set standards as weakening the agency’s position.
“Although the amendment appears to allow EPA to exercise its existing authority to set appropriate radiation release standards for the Yucca Mountain repository, it will allow another entity to block EPA’s authority until 1 June 2001,” said the Office of Management and Budget.
The administration further criticised the bill, saying it “contains unrealistic and unworkable milestones; insufficient funding mechanisms to pay for both the Yucca Mountain scientific programme and the ‘take title’ provisions; and burdensome and unworkable transportation provisions that do not provide a commensurate improvement in safety.” Murkowski commented that “the administration is opposing the legislation because it always has, regardless of what we’ve compromised.” The vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to prevent a White House veto.