Congress Hears "Shocking" Evidence Against Yucca Mountain

WASHINGTON, DC, April 25, 2002 (ENS) - Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn testified at a Congressional hearing today that a repository for disposal of high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada is "the product of extremely bad science, extremely bad law, and extremely bad public policy."

Governor Guinn, a Republican, said, "Implementing this ill conceived project will expose tens of millions of Americans to unnecessary nuclear transport risks."


Yucca Mountain (Photo courtesy DOE)
The Joint Hearing on Transportation of Spent Rods to the Proposed Yucca Mountain Storage Facility included members of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit and of the Subcommittee on Railroads. The lawmakers are considering a resolution approving a nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the only site in the nation being studied for the facility.

The Yucca Mountain site has been approved by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and by President George W. Bush, but vetoed by Governor Guinn. Approval by both houses of Congress is necessary to override Guinn's veto.

Guinn told the committee a new peer review of Yucca Mountain science commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) "reaches shocking new conclusions."


Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
Written by scientists from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the report evaluated the total system performance of Yucca Mountain as represented by the DOE and its computer models.

The peer review group reports that the water flow system at Yucca Mountain is “not sufficiently understood to propose a conceptual model for a realistic transport scenario.” There is concern that the flow of water through the repository site deep beneath Yucca Mountain could corrode the metal casks in which the radioactive waste would be stored, possibly releasing it into the water table.

The DOE’s level of understanding of the hydrogeology of the site is “low, unclear, and insufficient to support an assessment of realistic performance,” the peer group wrote, and the DOE’s computer models “do not give any clues to the important pathways for the water in the system.”

The governor said he was troubled by the peer review group's comment that, “increased ignorance leads to lower expected doses, which does not appear to be a sensible basis for decision-making.”

"It is truly amazing to me, as an elected executive official," Guinn said, "that DOE commissioned this peer review report many months ago, and then made a final site suitability determination to the President and the Congress in spite of its stunning conclusions. It shows once again, in my view, that politics has long prevailed over science when it comes to Yucca Mountain."


Tunnel inside Yucca Mountain. Here workers conduct scientific tests to determine the safety of the site to contain highly radioactive waste. (Photo courtesy Yucca Mountain Project)
"This is another reason for Nevada to redouble its efforts to stop this project - government bureaucrats seem unable to pull the plug, even in the face of shocking independent evidence that the science is bad or nonexistent," Guinn said.

Nevada has filed five lawsuits on a variety of Yucca Mountain related issues. They are still before the courts.

Energy Secretary Abraham and President Bush maintain that in the interest of national security, the number of high-level nuclear waste storage sites across the United States must be reduced from 131 to one, but Governor Guinn says a repository at Yucca Mountain will not achieve that goal.

"At current rates of spent fuel production," Guinn told the committee, "if Yucca Mountain were to open and be filled to capacity by around 2036, there would still be just about as much spent fuel stored at reactors sites as there is today."

"If DOE meets its shipping targets, it will take approximately 25 years to fill Yucca Mountain with 77,000 tons of waste and spent fuel," the governor testified. "But by then, operating reactors will have produced an extra 50,000 tons, leaving approximately 37,000 tons of spent fuel still sitting at reactor sites across America – a mere 9,000 tons less than we have today," said Guinn.

"Yucca Mountain will not reduce the number of storage sites across America for 60 to 100 years, even if no new plants are built, and Yucca Mountain will never reduce the number of storage sites as long as nuclear reactors continue to be built and operated," Guinn said.

Congresswoman Shelley Berkeley, a Democrat from southern Nevada, expressed "the outrage felt throughout Nevada" about the Yucca Mountain project.


Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkeley (Photo courtesy Office of the Representative)
"Over 83 percent of the people I represent vehemently oppose Yucca Mountain," she said. "Why are Nevadans so outraged? Because the state of Nevada produces not one kilowatt of energy through the use of nuclear power. And we create not one ounce of nuclear waste. Yet the federal government is asking the state of Nevada to store 77,000 tons of high level nuclear waste within an hour's drive of the homes of 1.4 million men, women, and children," she told the committee.

Berkeley agrees with Governor Guinn that Yucca Mountain will not eliminate storage sites for high-level nuclear waste. "When proponents of Yucca Mountain speak of consolidating the 131 storage sites into one repository located at Yucca Mountain, it's a deception," she said. "We won't be eliminating storage sites, we will be adding another."

Berkeley fears that an accident or terrorist attack during transport of the waste by road or rail would expose between 10 and 16 million people living within half a mile of transportation routes to highly radioactive material. "At the peak of the DOE's shipping schedule somewhere in our country a nuclear waste shipment will leave a reactor every four hours," she told the committee.

She cited the DOE's own environmental impact statement that "with 108,000 shipments we can expect between 50 and 300 accidents."

"In just the last two weeks we have unfortunately witnessed two separate devastating train accidents," Berkeley reminded her fellow representatives. "On Tuesday, a commuter train in California ran head-on into a freight train. On April 18, an passenger train derailed in Florida. Last July, a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in a Baltimore tunnel, closing down the city. That tunnel is on a train route identified by the DOE as a potential route to move waste from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. Can you imagine if this accident involved nuclear waste? The chaos the evacuation would cause? The potential number of casualties, the health risks? Can you imagine the cost of the cleanup?" she asked.


Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham explains his position on Yucca Mountain to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality (Photo courtesy House of Representatives)
But Energy Secretary Abraham defends his decision to place the nation's high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. At a congressional hearing April 18, he expressed confidence in the DOE scientific studies. The transportation of this radioactive material need not be disastrous, he said.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, working with the Departments of Transportation and Energy, has overseen approximately 30 years of safe shipment of spent nuclear fuel in this country. The Department and commercial nuclear industry have substantial experience to date – some 1.6 million miles - without any harmful radiation release. And the successful and extensive European experience in transporting this type of nuclear material corroborates our experience," Abraham said.

"The transportation of this material will involve approximately 175 shipments per year, not the 2,800 that the opponents allege. It would also constitute 0.00006 percent of the annual hazardous material shipments, and 0.006 percent of the annual radioactive material shipments that occur in this country today," he said.


Congressman Billy Tauzin of Louisiana chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
Any suggestion that the Energy Department has chosen any particular route or mechanism is "completely fictitious," said the secretary, who emphasized that after Yucca Mountain is designated as the repository site, the DOE will have eight years to devise a transportation plan.

Abraham told lawmakers during his testimony that even without a repository at Yucca Mountain, the need to find a place to put the spent fuel that is continuing to accumulate "will lead to the transportation of these materials, and likely quite soon."

"On-site storage space is running out and not all utilities can find new adjacent land where they can put this material. Therefore, they will devise ad hoc off-site consolidated storage alternatives. Already a consortium of utilities is working on a facility that they have presented to the NRC. Whether or not this effort ultimately succeeds, it is likely that some similar effort will," the secretary said.

The transportation of nuclear materials "is not a function of a repository at Yucca Mountain, but rather is a necessary consequence of the material that continues to accumulate at the 131 sites in 39 States that are running out of room for it," Abraham explained.

The secretary addressed fears of a terrorist attack that would release radiation into the environment. "Yucca Mountain critics argue that nuclear materials in transit could be a terrorist target. But they are forgetting the obvious," he said. "Spent fuel in secure transit to a permanent repository is certainly less susceptible to terrorist acts than spent fuel stranded at the temporary, stationary sites - many very close to major cities and waterways - where it now resides."