Yucca Mountain Can Meet EPA Radiation Standards, DOE Reports

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, August 22, 2001 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has a new report assessing the performance of the proposed high level nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain against strict safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report concludes that the Yucca Mountain site "would likely meet" the agency's radiation protection standards.

Yucca Mountain

Aerial view of Yucca Mountain, Nevada (Three photos courtesy U.S. Dept. of Energy)
The report will not end the controversy surrounding Yucca Mountain, the only site now being considered as a permanent repository for the nation's spent nuclear fuel. Environmentalists have long maintained that the site, located 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, would be unsuitable as a geologic repository, arguing that deadly radioactive contaminants would eventually leach out into groundwater flowing under the site.

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its final health and safety standards for the amount of radiation that could be permitted to escape from the Yucca Mountain repository. The standards are intended to address all potential sources of radiation exposure from groundwater, air and soil.

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said the standard, which limits radiation exposure to nearby residents to no more than 15 millirem per year from all pathways, could result in "about twice the exposure of just living in a brick house for a year."

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Inside Yucca Mountain, a researcher prepares to test the rock for its ability to contain radiation.
The new Yucca Mountain Preliminary Site Suitability Evaluation report released this week by the Department of Energy (DOE) finds that the site "would likely meet Environmental Protection Agency radiation protection standards and proposed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulations for protecting people and the environment."

But environmental groups and some scientists say the standards proposed by the EPA and the NRC are insufficient to protect either the public or the environment.

"A stringent standard is vital to protect public health and safety in the vicinity of the proposed repository," said Lisa Gue, policy analyst with the environmental group Public Citizen, after the EPA finalized its standards. "The EPA's rule affords inadequate protection to the people of Nevada and steers national nuclear waste policy in a dangerous direction."

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Researcher examines cores drilled from the interior of Yucca Mountain.
Public Citizen is part of a coalition of groups that oppose the Yucca Mountain site, and has filed a lawsuit challenging aspects of the EPA's safety standards for the repository. Other members of the coalition include Citizen Action Coalition of Indiana, Citizen Alert, Natural Resources Defense Council, Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, Nevada Desert Experience, and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

The EPA standard "undermines the purpose of radiation protection standards, by presuming that a repository at Yucca Mountain will not contain nuclear waste throughout the thousands of years it remains dangerous," said John Hadder, northern Nevada coordinator with Citizen Alert. "Exposure limits are built around expected levels of radioactive contamination leaking from the dump, thus establishing a regulatory framework for legalized nuclear pollution in Nevada."

Of particular concern to the coalition is an unregulated zone stretching for 12 miles (18 kilometers) around the proposed repository, in which the 15 millirem standard would not apply. The coalition says the EPA included the unregulated zone to circumvent legal requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The unregulated zone weakens the effect of the standards by allowing DOE repository designs to rely on dilution and dispersion - rather than containment - of radioactive waste, the groups said.

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Technicians test the suitability of Yucca Mountain to contain the radiation from thousands of tons of high level nuclear waste. (Two photos courtesy Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCWM))
The groups argue that radiation escaping from Yucca Mountain could contaminate an aquifer beneath the site that is a critical source of water for irrigation, dairy farming and drinking water. Though the EPA has set a separate, four millirem per year safety standard for groundwater supplies around Yucca Mountain, groundwater beneath the 12 mile unregulated zone around the site would not be required to comply with that standard.

"We have advocated a protective standard at all stages of the process leading up to this rule being finalized. We are now bringing this issue before the courts because our concerns have not been addressed," said David Adelman, senior attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council. "We cannot accept a rule that sets artificially weak standards to allow a fundamentally flawed project to move forward."

The DOE report released Tuesday describes the preliminary results of the DOE's evaluation of whether Yucca Mountain is a suitable site for a nuclear waste repository. Before the site can be approved by Congress and President George W. Bush, the Energy Department must decide whether to recommend Yucca Mountain as a suitable site.

"Any decision regarding a permanent repository for this nation's nuclear waste will be made based on sound science," said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. "The measures I am taking today are designed to assist me in this effort. I am committed to making sure that we arrive at the right decision for America."

Abraham has directed the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management to send the preliminary site evaluation to all stakeholders in the process - including opponents of the Yucca Mountain site - and is asking them to provide comments. The study will be forwarded to a number of leaders in the scientific community for addition input.

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Deep inside Yucca Mountain, scientists inject a mixture of compressed air and a tracer gas into a borehole to test how fast fluids and gases move through the rock
The Yucca Mountain Preliminary Site Suitability Evaluation, along with hundreds of supporting documents, have been available online at the Yucca Mountain Science Center at: http://ymp.gov/. The DOE says it has posted all relevant data to help the public review Yucca Mountain data and make informed comments on the proposed site.

The DOE will hold several public hearings in Nevada next month to solicit public comments. The agency has also extended the public comment period until September 20.

Hearings have been scheduled for: