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U.S. Representative Shelley Berkley

Our guest today is U.S. Representative Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada), here to discuss her objections to the proposal in Congress to use Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the nation’s nuclear waste repository. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Congresswoman Berkley.

Representative Shelley Berkley: Thank you.

Question from lencu: What are the prospects for upholding the Gov. of Nevada’s veto in the Senate?

MSNBC-Will Femia: Since that’s in the news today, let’s start with that one.

Representative Shelley Berkley: As everybody knows, we were not able to hold the Yucca vote down in the House of Representatives. However in the Senate I think we have a far better chance. Senator Reed and Senator Ensen are doing everything possible in order to garner 51 votes to keep Yucca Mountain free of nuclear waster and protect millions of people along the transportation routes from exposure to deadly nuclear waste.

Question from Claire: Why do we need to store nuclear waste in Nevada? Why can’t we store within our own states that make the waste?

Representative Shelley Berkley: That’s one of Nevada’s arguments. We don’t produce any energy by use of nuclear energy so the state of Nevada argues that not only do we not produce any power by the use of nuclear energy but that transportation of 77 thousand tons of the most toxic nuclear material known to man across 43 states to be buried in the Nevada desert is foolhardy, foolish, expensive and very dangerous.

What we propose is that at each nuclear reactor site that has nuclear waste stored already that we build dry cast storage, put nuclear waste in it where it will be safe for 100 years and let us take some time and some of the billions they are predicting it will cost to create Yucca Mountain and figure out how we’re going to render the nuclear waste less harmful. Right now it has a shelf life for 250,000 years. Even if we were able to ship 77,000 tons of toxic nuclear waste across 43 states we still would have the same problem because the nuclear reactors are continuing to produce nuclear waste and we have never figured out what to do with the byproduct and how we’re going to render this stuff less lethal.

Question from PETEDVAL: how safe will it be to transport nuclear waste across the country and how will be responsible if anything drastic may occur?

Question from killthecars: Has the present terrorized climate changed congress’s feelings about trucking all that waste across the country? Sounds like an invitation for disaster even without terrorist threats.

Representative Shelley Berkley: Those are both outstanding questions. To answer the first there is no way to safely transport 77,000 tons of toxic nuclear waste across the nation. They are estimating, this is the Department of Energy’s figures, they will take 108,000 shipments along our nation’s highways and railways and barges in order to move this stuff.

Statistically the Department of Energy estimates that here will be between 50 and 300 accidents. Just last month there were two accidents involving trains. What if those trains contained nuclear waste? The potential for catastrophic damage to our communities, to the health and well being of our people is enormous. Enter into this equation the component of a potential terrorist attack and the reality that there is no way to protect 108,000 shipments from that. It cannot be done and we are playing with fire by even suggesting it.

Question from Pat Gunz: If we have to put up with the mess at Yucca Mtn is there any way we can charge everyone a bundle to go thru the state? Then split the money received to give to the citizens of the state so they have some kind of payment for putting up with it?

Question from An AM 840 KXNT Listener in Las Vegas: Why don’t we just admit the fact the waste is coming here and get as much money as we can from the states that send us the waste. I think that would solve the states economic woes.

Representative Shelley Berkley: There are several answers to those questions. One is that there is no amount of money that can be possibly offered to the state of Nevada to compensate it for a potential nuclear disaster. If these so called safe canisters are buried in the Nevada desert and one should crack and get into our ground water, it would destroy the very water we depend on for our survival through the entire southwest portion of our nation for generations to come.

What type of compensation can we possibly request that would possibly compensate for that? The second part of the answer is not only are there no ongoing negotiations, there is nobody to negotiate with. There are no offers on the table. The federal government is not going to make any deal with Nevada. For the people to think there’s a pot of money, no such pot of money exists. There are no offers, there is no pot of money and for people to think otherwise is a tragic mistake.

Question from Your name: What aquifers exist under the proposed storage site and what communities draw their water from same?

Question from blueskies: How will the water table be affected?

Representative Shelley Berkley: There’s an enormous amount of water under the desert. And while we at first blush see rather desolate desert, it’s a dynamic area in our country. There’s seismic, volcanic and groundwater flow at Yucca. At the Nevada test site , the ground water has been contaminated by the above and under ground testing of atomic weapons in the 50’s and 60’s. Our biggest fear is rather than containing that ground water that is contaminated, Yucca will add to it and create a possible environmental disaster.

Question from TootUncommon: Congresswoman Berkley: Do you feel the only reason Department of Energy is proposing Yucca Mt with Basin and Range faulting over the stable NE granites (like Sweden) is because of your smaller constituency?

Representative Shelley Berkley: Yes, absolutely. In 1982, when the Department of Energy and the U.S. Congress decided they would examine and test several sites to see which one was the most suitable that was done because there was no American policy when it came to the disposal of nuclear waste. Very foolish in 1982, very foolish now. In 1987 the law was changed and only one site was determined to be examined for its ability to store nuclear waste.

Let me tell you how Yucca Mountain was arrived at. By 1987 it was determined that would be the only site examined. The other sites were in Texas and their delegation being very strong, magically they were eliminated. Washington state was a potential site. At that time the majority leader represented Washington state. When you go up and down the east coast, all those were eliminated. If you check those sites, they had someone as in the two examples I gave. Nevada in 1987 had two senators with very little seniority and two Congress people with very little seniority. The upshot is they ramrodded this legislation through and shoved it down Nevada’s throat. It was referred to in the state of Nevada as the “Screw Nevada Bill.”

Question from spectre: Do you (or any in the nevada delegation) have a viable solution instead of Yucca Mtn? btw, i do feel for your plight, and am proud of the way both republicans and democrats in nevada have come together on this.

Question from blueskies: Is there a safe place for nuclear waste?

Representative Shelley Berkley: In Nevada, this is a bipartisan issue. The delegation has come together in order to fight to keep Yucca Mountain free of nuclear waste. We do in fact have what we consider a viable option to transporting it across the country and putting it in an unstable area of our region. We suggest it be kept in dry cast on site, take some of the money it will cost to prepare Yucca Mountain, put half into R&D to figure out how to render it less harmful and the other half to make this nation energy independent and self sufficient and R&D of renewable energy sources. We pay lip service in this nation to wanting to be free of foreign energy sources such as Saudi oil but have done little to become self sufficient.

The administration’s proposal is to become more dependent on nuclear energy. While I agree we need to be self-energy-sufficient, I disagree with him when he says increased reliance on nuclear power is the solution. It’s not the solution, it creates an even greater potential problem for us. What I suggest is we take that money, the Department of Energy’s own numbers and other figures show this will cost anywhere from 56 billion to 308 billion —and there is nowhere in any budget I’ve seen that this money has been set aside. When people talk about the nuclear trust fund, there is only 11 billion in that. So at the very minimum, if the low number is the one ultimately determined to be the right number, there is no way to pay for this. Where are we going to get the resources?

Let’s use this money to become energy self sufficient. Right now wind, solar, geothermal, hydrogen, they’re not cost effective yet. But if we put the money in the technology, the research, the development, we will be able to make them as cost effective as gas and oil now, that’s where we should be going. Keep in mind that we could very easily put the existing nuclear waste that’s distributed at 131 sites now into dry cast storage, it’s safe for 100 years. In that 100 years if we haven’t figured out how to render it less harmful and become more self sufficient, we’ve got a bigger problem than now.

Question from Christina-Marie: Congresswoman, I read your speech on the floor of the house on your website and am impressed with the number of really good reasons not to send nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. My question is what did the DoE say to your objections? Do they maintain that your facts are wrong? Or do they just ignore you?

Representative Shelley Berkley: Senator Reed and I requested a general accounting office investigation. And as you know the General Accounting Office is an independent investigative arm of the U.S. Congress. They conducted a year long study and at the conclusion of it, they determined that there was still approximately 273 unanswered scientific questions that needed to be answered before you could decide if Yucca Mountain was a suitable repository. They determined the Department of Energy should wait till 2006 when all the studies were completed.

We took that information and distributed thorughout Congress and argued that even the General Accounting Office determined this site would not be judged suitable until at least 2006 and they completely ignored us and went ahead anyway. It is a total disregard for the rights of not only the people of Nevada but the state of Nevada itself. This is a blatant attempt by the federal government to impose its will on the state of Nevada without the appropriate scientific studies concluded that would determine whether or not Yucca Mountain was a suitable site. This is a horrid power grab by the U.S. government.

Question from Grace Pershon: I understand that there are many unresolved issues with Yucca Mountain and the Department of Energy wants approval first and then they say they’ll resolve the outstanding issues. First of all, isn’t that a backwards process? And second, what are the issues that need to be resolved and is there a chance they can’t be resolved and Yucca will never come to fruition even with Senate approval?

Representative Shelley Berkley: It is my belief that there will never be one ounce of nuclear waste stored at Yucca Mountain and this has been a waste of 20 years. Logistically it would be impossible to transport 77,000 tons, 108,000 shipments of nuclear waste across this nation without an accident, without the potential of a terrorist attack and it would be impossible to guarantee a canister stored deep within Yucca Mountain would be safe for 10,000 years. That is what this proposal is suggesting and it’s ludicrous.

There are still 273 scientific and technical studies that have not been concluded and won’t be till 2006. For this government to go ahead an invest billions of dollars in a site that has not been judged suitable is the height of irresponsibility. And that 56 billion they’ve estimated doesn’t take into account the enormous cost should there be an accident with nuclear waste. Who’s going to clean it up? What kind of training will the local government have? Who’s going to protect the people? What will we do with a nuclear accident? And who will bear the cost?

Question from Nick Christensen: What is the number one thing I, as a Nevadan, can do to convince the rest of the U.S. that transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain is not safe?

Question from PETEDVAL: Congresswoman, what can people in other states do to help?

Question from BlackMale: Plain and simple: How can we stop Yucca ( us citizens)

Representative Shelley Berkley: Good question. There is much that we can do to help educate our fellow citizens in the U.S. that this is not a Nevada problem. This is a problem for the U.S.A. And it is a problem we need to solve together. What we are recommending is that Nevadans who have friends and family and acquaintances throughout the U.S. contact them, tell them to call their Congress members and Senators. If they can’t call, then email, fax, send a letter. Let them know they do not want nuclear waste going across their communities, small towns, big cities, schools, hospitals and places of worship to be buried in a hole in the Nevada desert.

They expect them to protect them from the potential of a terrorist attack on one of these mobile Chernobyls. We hope when members of the Senate start getting pressured from folks back home, they realize how serious it is and that it’s no longer a Nevada issue, it’s an issue in their backyard. We don’t want to wait for a catastrophe for them to realize they’ve made a huge mistake. This is bad policy, bad politics and bad for the people of the U.S. to be transporting this lethal material across their state to be buried in the Nevada desert.

Question from Charles Hill: Given the fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has to approve the repository before it is built, aren’t the technical issues that Nevada is raising just a political smokescreen?

MSNBC-Will Femia: There is some concern on the question list that there are more pressing issues for Nevada.

Representative Shelley Berkley: We never sacrificed the important Nevada issues for Yucca Mountain. Eighty three percent of the people I represent are opposed to Yucca Mountain as a repository. Other issues are also being addressed in my congressional office. With every passing year, with every billion dollars that is put into Yucca Mountain before it is not determined to be a suitable site, that is another year that we have wasted in the effort to find alternative energy sources and to find out how to render the nuclear waste less harmful and another billion of taxpayers money that could be spent on more important endeavors. This is taking taxpayers’ money and putting it in a hole in the Nevada desert rather than spending it on the needs of the people of the United States of America.

Question from Mark Blight: Now that you are on the receiving end of a plan that was activated without a real game plan in mind, has your perspective as a legislator changed with regard to other proposals both pending and already enacted that do not have proper endgame scenarios mapped out?

MSNBC-Will Femia: Has this whole thing changed you as a legislator?

Representative Shelley Berkley: Yes. The process that we just experienced in the House of Representatives as we valiantly fought against putting nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain taught me an extremely valuable lesson. I am careful when it comes to taking things at face value, I want more information, I demand more information before I vote on important issues. It’s made me, I believe a better legislator, a better Congresswoman for the experience.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much Congresswoman Berkley for taking this time to chat with us. Can you give us some closing comments before we have to let you go?

Representative Shelley Berkley: This is a very challenging job, but for each challenge we learn a little, and I become a better represetative for the people of southern Nevada. You come to realize the most important thing you can do in the U.S. Congress is work your hardest to protect the people you represent against the federal government while you are taking their needs and concerns to the government for redress. It’s an interesting and delicate balance we have.

I believe our fight against Yucca Mountain has just begun and in the end the state of Nevada will be victorious, the people we represent will come out the winners and we will protect the people of Nevada from the ill conceived policy of storing thousands of tons of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. We have to have patience, be resolute and we will keep up this fight and win.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much Congresswoman for chatting with us.

Representative Shelley Berkley: Thank you

MSNBC-Will Femia: Today’s chat is obviously focused on the “against” perspective. Keep an eye on the chat schedule for details on other chats from other perspectives on this topic.

For the latest news on Yucca Mountain and other environmental issues, keep an eye on the Environment section.