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Published: Saturday, 6/29/2002

Stabenow on fence about Yucca nuclear waste


WASHINGTON - Environmental opponents of a proposed federal nuclear waste facility in Nevada know they don't have the votes of Ohio's two U.S. senators, but they remain hopeful of persuading Sen. Debbie Stabenow, (D., Mich.) to vote against the project.

Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) also plans to vote to override Mr. Guin's veto because “he wants to move the process forward,'' his spokeswoman said.

But Ms. Stabenow is officially “undecided'' about the issue, which could come up for a vote in the Senate soon. In May, the U.S. House overwhelmingly voted to override Mr. Guin's veto. But the veto - essentially killing the project - will stand unless the Senate votes to override it by the end of July.

As a member of the U.S. House in 1997, Ms. Stabenow voted for legislation to establish a temporary nuclear waste dump in Nevada. But she has become increasingly concerned about the safety of transporting the waste there, according to lobbyists for environmental groups.

“We think she is going to come around,'' said Pierre Sadik, a staff attorney for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “We'd say she's either neutral or leaning our way. She is concerned, justifiably so, about the potential problems for barge shipments [of nuclear waste] on Lake Michigan.''

Mr. Sadik said environmentalists haven't given up on Mr. Levin, either. He noted that Mr. Levin had drawn support for his past votes on the Yucca Mountain facility from the Michigan Environmental Council, an umbrella organization of environmental groups.

Several years ago, the environmental council supported the continuation of federal research to determine whether Yucca Mountain would make a safe repository for waste from U.S. nuclear energy plants.

After studying the research, however, the group now is “firmly against the Yucca Mountain project,'' Mr. Sadik said. “It will be interesting to see if Mr. Levin again looks to the council's position. ... We think we still have a chance to persuade him.''

Ms. Stabenow isn't giving any indication how she will vote, but she has continued to meet with groups on both sides of the issue, her staffers said.

Kym Spring, who is coordinating the Yucca Mountain opposition for Clean Water Action of Michigan, said she and other Michigan environmentalists met recently with Ms. Stabenow to discuss the issue.

They presented information that only 8 percent of the nuclear waste stored in Michigan would be transported to Yucca Mountain by 2025, based on recent federal government data.

“She was shocked, especially to hear that 8 percent figure,'' Ms. Spring said. “We could tell we gave her some food for thought.''

Meanwhile, it's unclear whether there will be a Senate vote on Yucca Mountain. Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.), the Senate's majority whip, and his colleague, Sen. John Ensign (R., Nev.) have come up with a novel way to try to block a vote.

The idea is this: Wait for Senate Republicans to make a procedural motion to start debate on the Yucca Mountain issue. At that point, the Nevada senators will object that, under Senate tradition, only Senate Majority Leader Tom Dashle (D., S.D.), can make such a motion. Mr. Daschle - a Yucca Mountain foe - isn't interested in doing so.

The Nevadans then will force a vote on the narrow procedural question of who has the right to start debate on an issue in the Senate. The Nevadans hope that Democrats, who are in the majority, will remain loyal to their leader by voting against bringing up Yucca Mountain for a vote.

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