Independent Review Questions Approval of Yucca Mountain

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 28, 2002 (ENS) - Scientific uncertainties make it impossible to ensure that a proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada would remain safe for the thousands of years necessary to protect the environment, suggests a review by the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board.

Yucca

Yucca Mountain, Nevada (Four photos courtesy DOE)
While the board (NWTRB) has found "no individual technical or scientific factor has been identified that would automatically eliminate Yucca Mountain from consideration as the site of a permanent repository" for the nation's nuclear waste, the review found a variety of problems with the studies that aim to ensure the safety of the site.

The NWTRB study questions the adequacy of the computer models used to project how the site's natural features, including geological and hydrologic formations, will protect the stored wastes. The report also raises concerns about how well casks designed to contain the wastes for the 10,000 years required by lawmakers will hold up to the potential tests of time, natural and manmade disasters.

"Gaps in data and basic understanding cause important uncertainties in the concepts and assumptions on which the DOE's performance estimates are now based," NWTRB concludes. "Because of these uncertainties, the Board has limited confidence in current performance estimates generated by the DOE's performance assessment model."

"The Board's view is that the technical basis for the DOE's repository performance estimates is weak to moderate at this time," the NWTRB concluded.

cores

Geologist studies cores from Yucca Mountain to determine its ability to contain radioactive waste.
However, "the Board makes no judgment on the question of whether the Yucca Mountain site should be recommended or approved for repository development," the report says.

The Department of Energy (DOE) says the NWTRB report provides "valuable independent confirmation of a critical conclusion" reached by the DOE after 24 years and $4 billion of research: that Yucca Mountain would make a suitable repository. Earlier this month, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that the agency intends to recommend to President George W. Bush that the Yucca Mountain site is scientifically sound and suitable to hold radioactive waste.

Yucca Mountain is the only site now under consideration as a permanent repository for high level radioactive wastes, including spent fuel from the nation's 103 nuclear power plants. Nevada itself has no nuclear reactors.

The NWTRB says that "eliminating all uncertainty associated with estimates of repository performance would never be possible at any repository site." Therefore, government officials and policymakers will have to determine "how much scientific uncertainty is acceptable," the board wrote.

The Board recommended that the DOE "continue a vigorous, well integrated scientific investigation to increase its fundamental understanding of the potential behavior of the repository system."

Under Secretary of Energy Robert Card said Thursday that the DOE is committed to reducing uncertainties about the safety of the Yucca Mountain site by using estimates of its performance projecting thousands of years in the future.

Abraham

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham
"The [Energy] Secretary is committed to ensuring the safety of citizens of Nevada and of the nation, a timely recommendation on a repository, and an ongoing course of research that would last so long as the repository is in its operating and monitoring period," Card said, noting that research could continue "as much as 100-300 years after its opening."

Card pointed out that the NWTRB did not disagree with the DOE that a repository at Yucca Mountain "would be safe throughout its operating and monitoring period, hundreds of years into the future." Card said there is no legitimate scientific organization that disagrees on this issue.

If President Bush decides to recommend the site, the state of Nevada will have the opportunity to disapprove the recommendation. If Nevada disagrees with Bush's recommendation, Congress will be responsible for designating a repository site for development.

"The Board's review of the 24 years of scientific study at Yucca Mountain is important, as is the decision on whether or not to address the country's nuclear waste problem at this time," Card said, "given the impacts to national security, environmental protection, and continued clean up of nuclear waste."

Spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste is now scattered across 131 sites in 39 states, Card noted.

Yucca

Yucca Mountain looking west into Crater Flat with volcanic cones in the background
Many Nevada officials oppose the planned repository. On January 24, the city of Las Vegas and Clark County, Nevada filed court documents charging that DOE approval of the Yucca Mountain site will cause "immediate and irreparable harm" to Las Vegas.

"Today's legal action represents our continued commitment to working with the governor and other elected officials as we pursue every option to keep Nevada from becoming the nation's nuclear waste dump," wrote Clark County Commission chair Dario Herrera in a written statement.

The petition, filed in a federal appeals court, asks the court to delay the DOE's official recommendation that the site be approved. By law, Energy Secretary Richardson must wait until February 10 to recommend the site - 30 days after he gave official notice to Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn of his intentions.

The state of Nevada filed a lawsuit on December 17, 2001 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.

Guinn

Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
If President Bush does approve a nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain, Governor Guinn plans to continue his opposition.

"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 said earlier this month.

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