Nevada Confronts Energy Chief Over Yucca Mountain

LAS VEGAS, Nevada, January 7, 2002 (ENS) - Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is touring the Yucca Mountain site today 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the only site proposed as a permanent repository for America's nuclear waste. What he will see is geologic testing to determine if the site is safe enough to store 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste.

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Yucca Mountain, Nevada (Photo courtesy DOE)
The waste from nuclear weapons production and from the operation of 103 nuclear power plants would be transported to Yucca Mountain at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site from its current storage locations in 43 states. Nevada itself has no nuclear reactors.

Nevada elected officials from all levels of government joined anti-nuclear activists at the federal building in downtown Las Vegas this morning to protest the use of Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear dump.

Governor Kenny Guinn, a Republican who is opposed to locating the nuclear repository in Nevada, said the man who can decide to recommend Yucca Mountain either positively or negatively to the President is taking a first hand look today at the state's request.

Guinn

Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
Guinn and Abraham met for an hour this morning, a meeting in which the governor said he had a chance to "reaffirm our adamant commitment against this project."

The state of Nevada filed a lawsuit December 17, 2001 to halt the Yucca Mountain Project, alleging that Energy Department ground rules for judging whether the site is suitable for nuclear waste storage are contrary to what Congress intended. Governor Guinn says the state is well prepared with a legal team that includes nuclear scientists, physicists and environmental experts, all with law degrees.

"For the first time in 18 years," Governor Guinn said, "we now have the wherewithal to enter into the judicial system with very competent attorneys and scientific people on their staff, and we're going to do everything we can to prohibit it from coming here no matter what decision he makes."

The lawsuit, before the federal district court in Washington, DC, asks that Secretary Abraham be prevented from making recommendations on Yucca Mountain until the ground rules are reviewed by the courts.

Abraham

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (Photo courtesy DOE)
In his meeting with Governor Guinn this morning, the secretary was noncommital. "His attitude has been much the same as Hazel O'Leary's was when she was secretary of energy, much the same as Bill Richardson's. They're all polite, they listen to you, but they move right ahead because there's been a law passed in the Congress."

In late 1987, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act singled out Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the only site to be characterized for development as a repository.

Other governors are eager to move the radioactive waste in their states into Nevada, particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Vermont Governor Howard Dean wrote to Secretary Abraham on September 20, "I would also stress that last week's terrorist action makes it imperative that the federal government live up to its commitment to store spent fuel at a national facility."

Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist wrote to the secretary on September 26, "...in addition to protecting future generations and the environment by permanently isolating high-level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel, it will also take into account post September 11 reality of securing and protecting the current numerous spent fuel storage locations across the nation."

Still, the Nevada governor is hopeful that Yucca Mountain will not have to take America's nuclear waste. "Maybe the President will not do anything," said Guinn, "because he's indicated to me and to the general public of this state during the election the same thing that Vice President Al Gore and President Clinton had indicated - that they would make their decisions based on science."

cores

Geologist studies cores from Yucca Mountain to determine its ability to contain radioactive waste. (Photo courtesy DOE)
"None of them have ever said anything other than that they want to look at the science, and now we're arguing the point that we think that there's a great deal more uncertainty in the science than ever before," the governor said.

If President George W. Bush does approve a nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain, Governor Guinn will continue his fight. "I can veto a decision by the President of the United States, and then within 90 days it has to go to both houses of Congress, the Senate and the House, and they have to overrule with at least a simple majority veto," Guinn explained.

At that point, the Nevada governor, a Republican, will work closely with his bipartisan Nevada team who all oppose a nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain - Democratic Senator Harry Reid and Republican Senator John Ensign, who both showed up at the protest today, plus Democratic Congresswoman Shelley Berkely and Republican Congressman Jim Gibbons who did not.

"Should that fail for some reason," Guinn said, "then we still have adjudication in the court system."

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Commissioner Dario Herrera (Photo courtesy Clark County Commission)
Dario Herrera, a Democrat, who chairs the Clark County Commission which governs the city of Las Vegas, said at the protest today that the scientific process is inadequate, and the Department of Energy is biased in favor of sending the nation's nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.

"I don't think there's any evidence that Secretary Abraham will do anything but recommend that site," said Herrera. "The bias has been obvious from his tenure. I believe his visit here is nothing more than a public relations move that will ultimately end up in Yucca Mountain being recommended as an appropriate site for nuclear waste."

"We don't believe that Nevadans are part of the process that should lead to making a site recommendation on Yucca Mountain, Herrera said.

In November, Herrera went to Washington in an effort to tell Department of Energy (DOE) officials that 90 miles away from America's playground, Las Vegas, is no place for high level nuclear waste transport and storage. He met with DOE undersecretary Andrew Card.

"We mentioned the litany of concerns the commission has - everything from an inadequate Environmental Impact Statement to the new terrorist threat that we're seeing as a result of Septmber 11. Not to our surprise none of those considerations have been taken into account as we move forward in the site recommendation process," Herrera said.

A range of citizens groups object to Yucca Mountain on environmental grounds. Kalynda Tilges of Citizen Alert, a Las Vegas based organization which has taken the lead in this campaign, says her group works with the Sierra Club and with Friends of Nevada Wilderness to educate the public about the dangers of burying nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain - even in concrete and steel canisters.

"What makes the mountain unsafe is that there's a lot of seismic activity in that area," Tilges said today. "There's a lot of volcanic cones out there and the DOE has state they have no idea if there's even magma under Yucca Mountain. There's 15 faults that run through the mountain, and they're already shown that water travels through the mountain very, very fast. It's not nearly as dry as they thought it was."

Yucca

Yucca Mountain looking west into Crater Flat with volcanic cones in the background (Photo courtesy DOE)
Water travelling through Yucca Mountain would allow radioactivity to escape from the repository, Tilges warns. "It means superheated steam with corrosive minerals in there that will eat right through the canisters and expose the waste into the heat and into the rock. And the department of Energy still doesn't know how this is all going to react together.

"If a volcano does erupt and blows these casks open," Tilges said, "you've got dispersal through the air and into the ground water. This repository is right over the Amargosa aquifer which waters the Amargosa Valley, one of the largest farming areas in our state, producing over 25 percent of Nevada's milk."

Arid Nevada is rich in groundwater which is badly needed by organic farms near Yucca Mountain, says Tilges. "You cannot contaminate people and the farms and their livelihood. We are not a sacrifice zone."

Governor Guinn wants to see the hot waste remain right where it is until a better technical solution is found. "We've always said, and I contended it with Secretary Abraham in my meeting with him today, that the waste should go into a dry storage system."

"This means that you can store it for up to 100 years in the very place where it has been produced," the governor said. "Hopefully within that hundred year period - we think it would be much faster than that, 25 years at the most - the scientific talent in America could find a way to use it in a different form as opposed to shipping it all across America and trying to put it all in one location like Yucca Mountain."

More information about the Yucca Mountain Project is online at: http://www.ymp.gov