Nevadans Get How To Lesson in Contesting Nuclear Waste Site

By Shervin Hess

LAS VEGAS, Nevada, May 24, 2001 (ENS) - Nevada residents learned this week exactly what they will have to do if they want to contest the controversial high-level radioactive waste repository proposed for Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Officials from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held two public meetings this week in Nevada to inform the citizens of their rights with regard to permitting of the only site in the nation being considered as a permanent repository for waste from nuclear power plants.


Aerial view of Yucca Mountain (Photos courtesy DOE Yucca Mtn. Project)
The NRC is obligated to approve or deny the Department of Energy’s plan for Yucca Mountain, which will call for at least 77,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste to be shipped to the site for long term storage from the individual nuclear power plants where it is now being held.

If the repository is permitted, many Nevadans fear water and ground contamination, as well as the threat of radiation that might be released if accidents occur during transport of the waste to Yucca Mountain.

“There have been a number of instances where lay persons have succeeded in meeting the committee threshold for denying an application,” NRC Associate General Counsel Lawrence Chandler said, citing examples where the public has succeeded in preventing the construction of various reactors.

However, no one has ever successfully stopped a radioactive waste repository from being built in the United States, because Yucca Mountain will be the first that the federal government attempts to take through the hurdles of public comment.

During the NRC’s licensing process, any member of the public will be able to observe prehearing conferences, act as a party in the hearing and authorize an organization to file an intervention petition.

Those who intervene in the permitting process must show that they have an interest that would be adversely affected by the outcome, and that their injury is distinct and concrete, not speculative.

But most of the some 100 Nevadans who attended the meetings said they believe speculation would be unavoidable, considering that there is no other permanent nuclear waste repository available for comparison. Yucca Mountain is the only site that is being studied for suitability as a high-level waste storage location.


Technicians use sound waves to probe the rock within Yucca Mountain for its ability to hold hot radioactive waste without emissions into the environment.
The Department of Energy (DOE) has been performing extensive scientific testing under the eye of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board to evaluate the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site. The DOE will propose a design for the repository to the NRC, but changes can be made after approval if any new significant environmental impact has been found.

Chandler explained that the emplacement of the waste must be reversible.

If the DOE application is granted, the President then decides the outcome, which can be contested by the state, after which it becomes a Congressional decision.

Nevada Senators Harry Reid, a Democrat, and John Ensign, a Republican, among others, have strongly opposed this repository since it was first proposed, claiming the science is not sufficient to justify the project. The DOE has been under fire from Nevada officials and environmentalists for its alleged bias in reporting environmental impact during its scientific assessment.

But Tuesday, Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor who served as Interior Secretary in the Clinton administration, endorsed the proposed Yucca Mountain repository.


Vice President Dick Cheney (Photo courtesy the White House)
Also Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney told the annual meeting of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s lobby group, that nuclear power is a very important part of the Bush administration's newly announced National Energy Policy. But Cheney had a warning for the 400 nuclear executives.

“It is also important for us to remember," Cheney said, "that if we fail to do an effective job beginning with the relicensing questions and the waste disposal questions with respect to nuclear energy, that eventually the contribution we can count on from the nuclear industry will in fact decline."

Currently, the nation’s 103 reactors operating in 31 states produce nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Encouraged by the Bush administration's stance, top nuclear industry officials announced their intention to build another 50 power plants over the next 20 years.

This would add around 50 percent waste to that which already exists, says Joe Colvin, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Colvin believes that by 2020, nuclear energy will be recognized as a safe and environmentally sound source of electricity.