Nevada Outraged as Yucca Mountain OKd for Nuclear Waste

WASHINGTON, DC, January 10, 2002 (ENS) - A mountain just 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, America's premier gambling resort destination, has been approved by the secretary of energy as the nation's long term geological repository for high level nuclear waste.


Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (Photo courtesy U.S. Government)
Over the objections of Nevada politicians in both parties at every level of government, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham today notified Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn and the Nevada Legislature that in 30 days he intends to recommend to President George W. Bush that the Yucca Mountain site is scientifically sound and suitable to hold radioactive waste.

Secretary Abraham said the development of Yucca Mountain "will help ensure America's national security and secure disposal of nuclear waste, provide for a cleaner environment, and support energy security."

Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn, a Republican, said he got the news by phone this morning in a telephone call from Secretary Abraham.

"I told him that I am damn disappointed in this decision and to expect my veto," Governor Guinn said. "I explained to him we will fight it in the Congress, in the Oval Office, in every regulatory body we can – we’ll take all of our arguments to the courts. This fight is far from over."


Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
“I also told him that on behalf of all Nevadans, I am outraged that he is allowing politics to override sound science," the governor said.

“At the conclusion of the call I told the secretary that I think this decision stinks, the whole process stinks, and we’ll see him in court.”

The state of Nevada filed a lawsuit December 17, 2001 in federal district court in Washington, DC to halt the Yucca Mountain Project. The state alleges that Energy Department's ground rules for judging whether the site is suitable for nuclear waste storage are contrary to what Congress intended.

The state asks that Secretary Abraham be prevented from making recommendations on Yucca Mountain until the ground rules are reviewed by the courts.

Governor Guinn says the state is well prepared with a legal team that includes nuclear scientists, physicists and environmental experts, all with law degrees.

But Secretary Abraham toured the Yucca Mountain site on Monday and says he believes the "science behind this project is sound and that the site is technically suitable for this purpose."

"There are compelling national interests that require us to complete the siting process and move forward with the development of a repository, as Congress mandated almost 20 years ago," Abraham said today.

"A repository is important to our national security," the secretary said. "We must advance our non-proliferation goals by providing a secure place to dispose of any spent fuel and other waste products that result from decommissioning unneeded nuclear weapons, and ensure the effective operations of our nuclear Navy by providing a secure place to dispose of its spent nuclear fuel."


Tunnel inside Yucca Mountain which Secretary Abraham toured on Monday. Here workers conduct scientific tests to determine the safety of the site to contain highly radioactive waste. (Photo courtesy Yucca Mountain Project)
"A repository is important to the secure disposal of nuclear waste. Spent nuclear fuel, high level radioactive waste, and excess plutonium for which there is no complete disposal pathway without a repository are currently stored at over 131 sites in 39 states. We should consolidate the nuclear wastes to enhance protection against terrorists attacks by moving them to one underground location that is far from population centers," he said.

"A repository is important to our energy security," Abraham said. "We must ensure that nuclear power, which provides 20 percent of the nation's electric power, remains an important part of our domestic energy production."

"And a repository is important to our efforts to protect the environment," said Abraham. "We must clean up our defense waste sites permanently and safely dispose of other high level nuclear waste."

Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat who holds the powerful position of Majority Whip called Abraham's decision "hasty and dangerous."

"It will come despite the growing mountain of evidence that the site is unsuitable and that this site recommendation is premature," said Reid who pins his hopes on President Bush who must agree on what Reid calls "the flawed report."

"After he receives the secretary's report, President Bush has an opportunity to cut through the bureaucratic pseudo-science, see this project for the sham that it is, and do the right thing for America and Nevada by changing course," Reid said.

Reid says the Department of Energy "has wasted $8 billion on Yucca Mountain and has virtually nothing to show for it. Now they want taxpayers to spend another $50 billion to develop a dump they can't prove to be safe. I hope the President will just say no."

If the President agrees the site is suitable for a repository, he would recommend it to Congress. Guinn and the Nevada Legislature would then have 60 days to submit a notice of disapproval to Congress, as they are expected to do.

If the governor and the Legislature decline to veto the site during the 60 day period, Yucca Mountain automatically becomes an approved repository site.

But if Guinn and the Legislature submit a notice of disapproval, Congress has the option of passing a joint resolution to override the veto within the first 90 days of a continuous congressional session. If Congress takes this action, the joint resolution becomes law and the site is approved.

The Energy Department then is required to file a license application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission 90 days after the site recommendation.

Nevada opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository is bipartisan. Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, called the decision "grossly irresponsible."

"As outlined by the December 2001 GAO [General Accounting Office] report," she said, "the secretary does not have the scientific data he needs to recommend the site, and any recommendation is therefore scientifically premature."


Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (Photo courtesy Office of the Representative)
Secretary Abraham's reasons "defy common sense," she said. "The so-called 'compelling national interests' cited by the secretary are more effectively addressed by the continued and reinforced storage of spent fuel at the reactor sites themselves. Furthermore, the secretary's claim that the repository would further our national security is completely mistaken. In fact, the transportation of nuclear waste through 43 states, and the construction of a single identifiable repository outside the fastest growing metropolitan region in the country, are gross and needless risks to our national security, and a slap in the face to every Nevadan."

"The secretary's claim that the repository is important to protect the environment is dangerously misleading," said Berkley. "Scientists have uncovered compelling evidence suggesting that the site could be devastating to the environment for tens of thousands of years."

In a document released today along with the notification, the Department of Energy characterizes Yucca Mountain as safe and far enough from Las Vegas so that it does not create a hazardous situation. "The mountain sits on restricted federal land: part of the Nevada Test Site, combined with portions of the Nellis Air Force Range and parcels managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Since January 1951, over 900 U.S. nuclear weapon tests have been conducted at the Nevada Test Site. The U.S. Geological Survey and national laboratories have been studying the area’s geology and hydrology since the start of atomic testing...Yucca Mountain would be one of the few nuclear facilities located in a remote area where there are no metropolitan centers within 75 miles."


Yucca Mountain looking west into Crater Flat with volcanic cones in the background (Photo courtesy DOE)
"Water is the main means of transporting radionuclides out of a repository and into the accessible environment. Yucca Mountain is located in one of the most arid and remote deserts in the United States," says the Department of Energy (DOE).

"Yucca Mountain also has many natural barriers that limit or delay what little water is available from entering the emplacement drifts. DOE has designed a set of engineered barriers that take advantage of the natural features and work in concert with the natural environment to isolate waste for tens of thousands of years... Only about one percent of the waste packages are projected to lose their integrity during the first 80,000 years."

But 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 with engineered barriers.

"What makes the mountain unsafe is that there's a lot of seismic activity in that area," Tilges said Monday. "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."

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."