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Battle over Yucca Mountain as nuclear waste depository far from over

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Energy Department's embrace of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the nation's future nuclear waste dump is being hailed as a breakthrough by the nuclear industry and its supporters.

But it will be far from the last word, even if President Bush, as expected, gives the project the green light.

The next real battle ground likely will be in Congress, where the Nevada congressional delegation vows to continue to fight.

The Nevadans are likely to get help from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who called the endorsement of Yucca Mountain ``unfortunate and premature.'' South Dakota, like Nevada, has no nuclear power plants.

But Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., acknowledged in an interview that ``it's going to be a tough deal'' to overturn Bush if he goes along with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who said Thursday he was recommending Yucca Mountain.

``Nothing has been easy on this thing,'' said Reid, who is No. 2 in the Senate leadership and has fought against Yucca Mountain for years.

He hopes that he will be able to sway senators to Nevada's side by emphasizing that approval of Yucca Mountain will mean thousands of shipments over the interstate highways and rail lines through urban centers like Chicago and St. Louis and across 45 states.

``This is about more than Nevada,'' he insists.

Abraham said he would tell Bush that the Yucca Mountain site 90 miles from the glitter and lights of Las Vegas is a ``scientifically sound and suitable'' place to bury 77,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

The government has spent the past dozen years studying Yucca Mountain, which is adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear bombs were detonated during the Cold War. So far the studies have cost more than $6.8 billion.

But thanks to a law passed 20 years ago, Nevada's chances to bar the waste shipments may not yet be dead. It allows Nevada to veto the president, although in turn Congress may override the state's objection and let the project proceed anyway.

``This is not the final step,'' declared Nevada Sen. John Ensign, a Republican, openly miffed Thursday that his GOP colleagues in the administration had turned on his state. ``There is still a lot of fight left in this team. The battle is far from over.''

He said Bush could cost Republicans two of Nevada's three congressional seats in Nevada and threaten the GOP's narrow majority in the House if he approves the Yucca Mountain site.

``We will use every argument _ scientific, fiscal argument as well as every political argument with the White House,'' Ensign said.

While Ensign and other Nevada politicians talked of additional lawsuits and trying to persuade Bush to go against his own advisers, the real fight over nuclear waste is likely to play out in Congress. Many lawmakers have a personal stake since their states now have the waste destined to go to Yucca Mountain.

And if past votes on the issue are any barometer, the Nevadans may be in for still another bruising. It was 15 years ago in Congress that Nevada got into the mess it's in today.

It was then that Congress _ by a better than 2-to-1 margin in both the House and Senate _ declared that only Yucca Mountain was to be considered as the nation's nuclear waste repository, eliminating two other potential sites in Washington state and Texas. Several other regions of the country had been fenced off for consideration earlier.

Nevada politicians said the vote was largely because lawmakers didn't want the waste in their state. The same sentiment is likely to surface this time around.

But today, there are more than 40,000 tons of highly radioactive reactor waste piling up at nuclear power plants in 31 states, with the amount growing by 2,000 tons annually. If Yucca Mountain is approved it all heads to Nevada; if Nevada prevails, Congress must begin from scratch in its search for a burial place.

No state has more reactors than Illinois, so House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., was quick Thursday to heap praise on Abraham. The energy secretary's ``sound decision will finally enable us to take a necessary step forward'' on addressing the waste problem, said Hastert.

A broad coalition of industry groups has launched a program, spearheaded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to press for approval of the Yucca Mountain waste facility. Environmentalist and anti-nuclear groups have vowed to fight the project.

The industry group is co-chaired by former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a conservative Republican, and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who said she joined because the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks convinced her nuclear wastes should be consolidated at one place.
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