Taking a step toward resolving the long-running controversy over where to store thousands of tons of nuclear waste, the Senate passed a bill Wednesday to create an interim storage site at Yucca Mountain, northwest of Las Vegas.
The measure was approved, 63-37, and now goes to the House where it faces a crowded legislative agenda and White House opposition.
The bill’s proponents, including Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, attributed the White House opposition to election-year politics rather than policy concerns.
“The president has to recognize that we had a bipartisan vote up here and exercised leadership on the issue,” Murkowski said. “It’s time for him to do the same. If he chooses to veto, that would be an irresponsible act.”
The legislation has been strongly pushed by the nuclear energy industry. Nuclear sludge and other highly radioactive byproducts of nuclear power generation have been piling up in cooling pools at more than 100 power plants nationwide.
The bill’s supporters argue that a centralized site would be safer than storage at the power plants and 81 other temporary sites in 41 states, many of which are near businesses, schools and homes in growing population areas. The proposed site is near a former weapons-testing range 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Opponents, including environmentalists and other Nevada state officials, say the interim site is unnecessary because individual power plants can continue to store the waste for years to come.
They fear that using Yucca Mountain for temporary storage will inevitably lead to developing the site as the nation’s permanent repository of nuclear waste.
They also say the cross-country transportation of the deadly waste would endanger millions of people along routes through 43 states - invoking the notion of a “mobile Chernobyl,” the notorious Russian nuclear reactor that exploded 10 years ago in the Ukraine.
“We’re sad that the Senate caved in to the radioactive lobby,” said Anna Aurilio, a scientist with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington.
Nevada’s two Democratic senators had managed to tie the measure up with a series of parliamentary maneuvers, but on the House side, the state’s tiny two-member delegation seems unlikely to be able to muster similar opposition.