Politics & Government

GOP assails Obama on nuke waste

Gov. Mark Sanford and top Republicans pledged Tuesday to fight President Barack Obama's plan not to open a Nevada disposal site that would take South Carolina's deadliest atomic garbage.

Obama should reconsider his proposal to abandon the Yucca Mountain site - or be prepared to slug it out in court, GOP leaders said at a politically charged news conference in Columbia. Attorney General Henry McMaster, a candidate for governor, said he's weighing legal action that could force the site to open.

Sanford, flanked by Republican U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson and Gresham Barrett, said the federal government should make good on its promise to open Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste disposal. The plan has been in the works since 1987 and has cost the country some $10 billion, Sanford said. The government was to begin moving waste to Yucca in 1998, but environmental concerns in Nevada delayed the project.

Sanford, Wilson and Barrett, who also is a candidate for governor, challenged S.C. Democrats to support them.

"This issue is too big to be driven by partisan politics in Washington, D.C.," Sanford said, noting that the administration's proposal will "undo a 25-year solution that's been in place during Republican and Democratic presidential administrations."

U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a Democrat from York County who chairs the House Budget Committee, said after the news conference that the Yucca Mountain site should open.

"I disagree with the administration's decision on Yucca Mountain," Spratt said in a statement. "Last year I chaired a budget hearing highlighting the impact and liability should Yucca not be completed. I will do all I can to make sure some funding goes to the project next year."

Without Yucca Mountain, South Carolina could be stuck with 7,200 containers of deadly high-level nuclear waste at the 60-year-old Savannah River Site weapons complex near Aiken. The waste material, the result of Cold War nuclear weapons production, is being turned into glass and stored in two systems of underground vaults, awaiting transport to Nevada. One set of vaults is full, U.S. Department of Energy spokesman Jim Giusti said.

South Carolina's commercial nuclear reactors also need a place to dispose of high-level waste created during power production.

Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles from Las Vegas, was to take nuclear waste from the nation's atomic power plants, as well as nuclear weapons complexes. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, has been fighting the plan, saying it threatens the environment. The plan is to bury the waste in the hollowed-out mountain.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration decided against funding Yucca Mountain in next year's budget and has signaled its intent not to pursue a license for the facility.

The Department of Energy issued a statement late Tuesday saying Obama had appointed a special commission to study managing nuclear waste and was "fully committed to ensuring that the nation meets our long-term storage obligations."

U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said Obama made good on a campaign promise not to turn Nevada into a "nuclear waste dump."

"Maybe Gov. Sanford hatched this dream to save Yucca Mountain during a hike along the Appalachian Trail or on one of his trips overseas," she said Tuesday night.

But Bob Alvarez, a former DOE adviser under President Bill Clinton, said Obama's nuclear policies have sent mixed signals. On one hand, Obama supports loan guarantees for more nuclear power plants - the first of which he announced Tuesday - but has taken away the place utilities counted on to take their waste, Alvarez said.

"The reality is that spent fuel is going to be building up at these sites for decades to come and we need to be looking at safe and secure storage," Alvarez said.

Sanford, a former congressman, was also joined Tuesday by a host of Republicans seeking political office. Some, including gubernatorial candidate state Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, blasted the Obama administration on a number of fronts, including Yucca Mountain.

With the issue unresolved, state Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, said he planned to introduce legislation in the General Assembly to end any more payments by power customers who are being charged for the Yucca Mountain site.

Utilities already are suing the government over its failure to open Yucca Mountain. South Carolinians have spent some $1.2 billion to help prepare the site. Overall, the site has cost more than $10 billion to prepare, Sanford's office said.

McMaster said he has spoken with the attorney general's office in Washington state about legal action, but said he's still researching the matter. Washington state also has a huge volume of high-level nuclear waste at the Hanford weapons complex.

"The law says Yucca Mountain is the best place to put" waste, McMaster said. "It was decided on, everybody had their say and it was determined that this was thing to do."