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What Will Congress Do About Yucca Mountain?

On February 15, 2002, President George W. Bush made a historic, though expected, decision to recommend Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the U.S. nuclear waste repository for irradiated fuel from commercial nuclear power plants and for high-level waste from the nuclear weapons program. Because Nevada will exercise its veto over the recommendation, every member of Congress can be part of the decision later this year to proceed with Yucca Mountain or support Nevada's veto.

The process that led to the president's decision traces directly back to the law passed by Congress on December 21, 1987 to designate Yucca Mountain as the sole site for the Department of Energy (DOE) to investigate for a commercial waste repository. The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1987 changed many important features of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982 that established the basic requirements for repositories. President Reagan signed the amendments into law.

Since that time, a huge majority of Nevada citizens and government officials, along with others around the country, have strongly opposed the "Screw Nevada" bill. They have succeeded in frustrating the basic goal of the 1987 law, which was to ensure that DOE would begin accepting irradiated fuel from nuclear utilities in 1998. Opponents have also pointed out numerous technical flaws with the site, of which Congress was unaware in 1987, and have identified many concerns about waste transportation. (See, Voices, Spring 2001, pages 3-5, also at www.sric.org/_________.) They even defeated bills in Congress over the past seven years to accelerate sending waste to Yucca Mountain. But the many opponents did not succeed in getting DOE or the president to disqualify the site. So Congress now will be forced to choose between state's rights and federal compulsion, between public health and safety and granting the nuclear power industry's number one priority, and between managing nuclear waste at existing power plants and the government/industry public relations scare-tactics.


DOE's Yucca Mountain Project Office
PO Box 30307, M/S 010
North Las Vegas, NV 89036-0307
(800) 967-3477

Nevada Nuclear Waste Projects Office
1802 N. Carson St., Ste. 252
Carson City, NV 89701
(775) 687-3744

Citizen Alert
PO Box 17173
Reno, NV 87114
(775) 827-4200

Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program
215 Pennsylvania Ave., SE
Washington, DC 20003
(202) 454-5130

Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
6935 Laurel Avenue
Takoma Park, MD 20912
(301) 270-5500

Nuclear Information and Resource Service
1424 16th Street, NW, Ste. 404
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 328-0002

The Administartion's Yucca Mountain Position

In his letter to Congress recommending Yucca Mountain, President Bush stated:

Proceeding with the repository program is necessary to protect public safety, health, and the Nation's security because successful completion of this project would isolate in a geologic repository at a remote location highly radioactive materials now scattered throughout the Nation. In addition, the geologic repository would support our national security through disposal of nuclear waste from our defense facilities.

While the president asserts that Yucca Mountain would best protect the public, DOE's own final environmental impact statement does not support that position. That document says that there would be no deaths to the public from continuing to store irradiated fuel at nuclear power plants for the next 100 years. Meanwhile, DOE estimates at least four deaths from routine radiation exposures and expected accidents from 24 years of transporting tens of tons of waste to Yucca Mountain in 10,700 train shipments. Public health effects would be higher (eight deaths) if the waste is shipped in 53,000 truck shipments. Health effects would be higher if a serious accident occurred, since there could be an estimated five deaths from a single train disaster.

Aside from serious concerns about whether those estimates are unrealistically low, the presidential statement disregards the fundamental fact that each operating power plant will continue to store its most highly radioactive waste for at least five years after it is generated, even as it would send older waste to Yucca Mountain. The waste would remain scattered at dozens of power plants and at Yucca Mountain, as well as being scattered on trains or trucks traveling across the country every day for decades, even if the site was opened in 2010, which appears unlikely.

The presidential letter also ties using Yucca Mountain to maintaining nuclear power as a "major component" of U.S. electricity generation. So, to a large degree, Yucca Mountain is essential to support the generation of more electricity and more nuclear waste for decades to come rather than to "solve" an existing public health and safety problem.

While this government map shows the pervasiveness of nuclear waste in many parts of the nation, it overstates what is legally allowed to go to Yucca Mountain and even what DOE currently intends to ship there. For example, about 90 percent of the volume, and more than 95 percent of the radioactivity planned for Yucca Mountain is from the 72 commercial reactor sites. The remaining waste is to be from five DOE sites in Washington, Idaho, Colorado, South Carolina, and New York. That's 77 sites, not 131. Moreover, current law limits Yucca Mountain's capacity to 70,000 metric tons, leaving large amounts of the waste quantities shown to stay at existing sites.

It's Nevada's Turn

The NWPA provides that once the president recommends a site to Congress, Nevada has 60 days to submit a "notice of disapproval" together with its reasons for opposing the site. The Nevada Legislature has already authorized Governor Kenny Guinn to submit that disapproval. On the day of the presidential recommendation, the governor publicly stated that he will exercise the veto. But he intends to wait virtually the entire 60 days, so the actual veto submission to Congress will apparently not occur until around April 15.

In his statement on February 15, the governor reaffirmed that the state "will exhaust every option and press our legal case to the limit." Nevada has filed lawsuits challenging the Environmental Protection Agency standards regarding the amount of long-term radioactive releases allowed from the site, and against DOE's repository siting guidelines and the recommendation. If Congress approves the site recommendation, Nevada will also actively participate in the three or four year licensing proceeding of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Nevada's reasons for opposing the site include the technical flaws of the site and the resulting likely contamination of water in the Amargosa Valley of Nevada and in California. Two recent reports from non-Nevada sources support some of the state's concerns.

On December 21, 2001, the General Accounting Office issued a report stating that it may be premature to recommend Yucca Mountain, in part because the license application is years from being ready — not 90 days after Congress approves the site as required by the NWPA — "because of the large number of technical issues remaining to be resolved before an acceptable license application can be filed with NRC." Further, DOE "does not have a reliable estimate of when, and at what cost, such a repository can be opened."

On January 24, 2002, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, established by Congress under the 1987 NWPA amendment law to provide an independent review of DOE's work at Yucca Mountain, issued a report stating that when "DOE's technical and scientific work is taken as a whole, the Board's view is that the technical basis for the DOE's repository performance estimates is weak to moderate at this time." Moreover, because of site geologic conditions, "DOE's estimates of repository performance currently rely heavily on engineered components of the repository system, making corrosion of the waste package very important." Particularly, the corrosion resistance of the nickel-chromium Alloy 22 that DOE plans to use for waste packages will be critical to containing wastes. But the Board notes that "data on aqueous corrosion for Alloy 22 above about 120ยบ C under conditions relevant to Yucca Mountain are essentially nonexistent, creating a serious data gap. Consequently, there is great uncertainty about the performance of Alloy 22 under high-temperature conditions. Because of this uncertainty, it is difficult to be confident that waste packages would last for at least 10,000 years for repository designs that have high temperatures."

On February 6, 2002, Nevada issued a 272-page report, with more than 60 pages of references, on the economic impacts of Yucca Mountain on Nevada and other states and tribes. The report concludes: "the reality of Yucca Mountain is one of massive, pervasive, unavoidable, and unmitigable impacts to Nevada and the nation.... The report does not seek to make a case for mitigation, compensation, or benefits. It is Nevada's position that there is no form or amount of compensation that will make this fatally flawed and dangerous program acceptable, for Nevada or for the nation as a whole. The only way to 'fix' the program is to acknowledge that it is unfixable and, thereby, permit the nation to move on and consider other, more appropriate, less damaging, and more promising approaches to managing the disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste."

This schematic shows the three planned waste packages to be made with Alloy 22. From the left: the pressurized water reactor package for irradiated fuel from some commercial plants; the waste package for DOE high-level waste canisters; and the package for commercial boiling water reactors. The "Drip Shield" is intended to keep moisture from reaching and corroding the waste packages and were added to the design in the past year because of concerns about water and corrosion in the supposedly "dry" mountain.

Then Congress Descides

Once Governor Guinn submits the Nevada veto to Congress, both the House and Senate have 90 days to override the veto with majority votes so that DOE can proceed with the Yucca Mountain repository. The NWPA establishes elaborate procedures, including eliminating a Senate filibuster, to ensure that votes are taken in each House. Thus, all members of Congress can vote yes on a resolution to approve the site or no on the resolution to support Nevada's veto.

Citizens around the country are urging their representatives to vote no on Yucca Mountain because of the technical flaws with the site and the dangers of transporting unprecedented amounts of highly radioactive waste through 44 states. Will the public concerns about public health and safety be heeded or will the money of the nuclear industry lobby and the public relations claims to "solve" the waste problem prevail?

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