Bush Hears Arguments Against Nevada Nuclear Waste Dump

WASHINGTON, DC, February 8, 2002 (ENS) - A bipartisan group of top elected Nevada officials made their case against the Yucca Mountain geologic nuclear waste repository to President George W. Bush in the Oval Office Thursday afternoon.


President George W. Bush in the Oval Office (Photo by Eric Draper courtesy The White House)
Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn and Senator John Ensign, both Republicans, and Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, met for 25 minutes with the President and several of his top advisors.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who was not present at the meeting, has notified Nevada that on February 10 "based on sound science and compelling national interest" he will recommend to President Bush that the site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas is scientifically suitable to receive the nation's high level nuclear waste. The waste must be safely contained for at least 10,000 years.

In the Oval Office, the governor spoke first, outlining Nevada's lawsuit in federal court against Energy Department science, sources said. Senator Ensign briefed the President on possible alternatives to entombing the waste in casks, such as transmutation, that are being ignored by the Energy Department.

Senator Reid made the case against transporting nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel now stored at 131 sites in 39 states by road and rail to Nevada, in view of terrorist threats.

During their meeting, the President gave no indication whether he would approve a recommendation or not, according to Governor Guinn.

But the President's budget proposal to Congress, released Monday, says, "Should the site be formally designated this year, current plans call for the repository to open in 2010. The Budget provides sufficient funding that deadline."

"If the site is designated," the Budget states, "the Administration will seek additional funding to begin construction of essential transportation facilities and infrastructure within Nevada, and provide a long-term management and financing plan for the entire licensing and construction effort. The Administration is committed to ensuring the environmentally sound and safe disposal of the nation’s radioactive waste."


Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn on Capitol Hill (Photo courtesy U.S. House of Representatives)
Governor Guinn said Bush promised him during the election campaign that his Yucca Mountain decision would rest on sound science. But several independent assessments released in the past 30 days have said that scientific testing at Yucca Mountain shows problems with the containment of the radioactive waste.

In the White House meeting, and in a letter to Secretary Abraham on Monday, Governor Guinn pointed out that a January 24 report from the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (TRB) concluded that the technical basis for DOE’s repository performance estimates at Yucca Mountain is “weak to moderate at this time.”

The review board is an independent agency tasked with assessment of the suitability of Yucca Mountain.

"Contentious meetings between the TRB and DOE [Department of Energy] in Nevada last week only further underscored the lack of any credible evidence supporting the suitability of Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste disposal," Guinn wrote.

“We wouldn’t dream of settling for weak to moderate techniques from a surgeon trying to save someone’s life or a pilot trying to land a plane,” Senator Reid said. “I can’t believe that the administration would settle for weak to moderate science as the basis for this decision. I once again call on President Bush to keep his word that he will let sound science prevail in the designation on a nuclear waste repository.”

“When we talk about one of the deadliest materials on our planet, sound science should mean strong science not weak science,” Senator Ensign said.


Yucca Mountain, Nevada, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas (Photo courtesy DOE Yucca Mountain Project)
Another report critical of burying high level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain was issued December 21, 2002 by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative branch of Congress. This report said Secretary Abraham's recommendation to the President "may be premature," and questioned "the prudence and practicality of making such a recommendation at this time."

With his letter to Secretary Abraham, Governor Guinn enclosed a "critically important" sworn affidavit by Dr. John Bartlett, who previously ran DOE’s Yucca Mountain project as director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.

Dr. Bartlett concluded that the Yucca Mountain site is "unsuitable for nuclear waste disposal," the governor wrote. "Even more troubling, he attests that DOE has itself reached this conclusion. He attended the recent TRB meetings in Nevada and observed further indications along these lines."

In his affidavit, Dr. Bartlett says the DOE has "strayed from the mandates of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act," and from its original scientific mission, by abandoning geologic isolation at Yucca Mountain in favor of manufactured contrivances. "Given Dr. Bartlett’s stature and experience in this field, it is hard to imagine a more powerful indictment of the actual science at Yucca Mountain," Guinn wrote.


Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (Photo courtesy DOE)
Guinn urged Secretary Abraham not to recommend Yucca Mountain to the President at this time, but "to join with Nevada in requesting the court to expedite review of the merits of our case, and to be guided by the court’s decision."

Meanwhile, the state of Nevada has notified the Energy Department that it will cut off water to the Yucca Mountain site on April 9. In a letter to Scott Wade, an Energy Department environment, safety and health official in North Las Vegas, State Engineer Hugh Ricci denied the DOE's request for an extension of their permit to withdraw water from state aquifers because it is not in the state's interest.

The Energy Department was using the water for site characterization tests, but these ended January 10, when Abraham notified Nevada that he would recommend the site positively to the President in 30 days.

The use of Nevada water to build the Yucca Mountain repository, if it is eventually approved, is now the subject of a series of court actions and appeals before U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt.

If the President makes a recommendation to the Congress, Nevada has 60 days to disapprove the site. Governor Guinn has announced his intention to disapprove Yucca Mountain. If disapproved, the Congress has 90 days of continuous session to enact legislation overriding a disapproval.

If the Congress overrides the state’s disapproval, the secretary is required to submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) within 90 days after the site recommendation is effective. These time frames provide about 150 to 240 days, or about five to eight months, from the time the President recommends the site until DOE submits a license application.


Deep beneath Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a technician tests its suitability to contain high level nuclear waste. (Photo courtesy YMP)
The General Accounting Office report questions the ability of the Energy Department to submit an acceptable application to the NRC within the time frames established by law. The DOE will need several years to resolve 293 specific technical issues, the GAO said, including how water would flow through the repository area to the underlying groundwater and the durability of waste containers to last for thousands of years.

In February 2001, DOE hired Bechtel SAIC Company, LLC (Bechtel), to manage the Yucca Mountain site assessment program and required the contractor to reassess the remaining technical work and the estimated schedule and cost to complete this work.

In September 2001 Bechtel reported that the work required to submit a license application, assuming expected funding levels, would put the DOE in a position to submit a license application in January 2006.

In its December 2001 report, the GAO warned that the Energy Department "is unlikely to achieve its goal of opening a repository at Yucca Mountain by 2010 and currently does not have a reliable estimate of when, and at what cost, such a repository can be opened."

The urgency driving this process is as much financial as it is concerned with public safety. Courts in 18 cases brought by power utilities are currently assessing the amount of damages that the Energy Department owes the nuclear power plant owners for delaying the disposal of their wastes by at least 12 years past a court ordered disposal date of January 31, 1998.

Estimates of the potential damages vary widely, from the DOE’s estimate of about $2 billion to the nuclear industry’s estimate of $50 billion.

Nuclear power plant owners are currently holding about 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel in temporary storage at 72 plant sites in 36 states. In addition, the DOE estimates that it has over 100 million gallons of highly radioactive waste and 2,500 metric tons of spent fuel from the development of nuclear weapons and from research activities in temporary storage.

Because these wastes contain radioactive elements that remain active for hundreds of thousands of years, the GAO said, the permanent isolation of the wastes is "critical for safeguarding public health, cleaning up DOE’s nuclear facilities, and providing a reasonable basis for increasing the number of nuclear power plants."