President George Bush ploughed into fresh controversy on the environment yesterday by giving his approval to a plan to store 77,000 tons of nuclear waste under a mountain in the Nevada desert – a plan denounced by many scientists, former government officials and Nevada politicians as a serious security and contamination risk.
He rubber-stamped a recommendation by his Energy Secretary, Spencer Abraham, who concluded last month that the site at Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles north-west of Las Vegas, was "scientifically sound and suitable".
The government has spent 20 years looking for a suitable repository for the nation's nuclear energy industry, and a decision is already long overdue.
Supporters of the President's decision say he had no choice given the mounting of volume of radioactive waste currently being stored at a number of makeshift sites around the country. Yucca Mountain is the only place remote enough, and surrounded by enough federally-owned land to be secure enough, they argue.
Opponents of the scheme argue transporting waste to Yucca Mountain is dangerous in itself. They also fear contamination of groundwater or worse, because of the geology of the mountain and its position at the junction of seismic faults.
Earlier this month, the former head of the Department of Energy's taskforce on the issue, John Bartlett, said the government had known since 1995 that the Yucca Mountain site posed contamination risks to major water sources in the American West. Tom Daschle, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, has raised concerns about a waste dump's attractiveness as a terrorist target.
In Nevada, Congressman Shelley Berkley denounced the decision as "corrupt and morally bankrupt". The mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, called a news conference on Thursday and said of Mr Abraham: "I've called him a blockhead before, I've called him a fathead before. It's too good for him. That's it. Any questions?"Reuse content