Yucca Mountain recommended as nuclear waste storage site

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham Thursday formally recommended to President Bush that the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada be developed as the nation's first long-term repository for high-level radioactive waste, according to the Department of Energy.
   Nuclear waste currently is stored in temporary surface storage facilities located at 131 sites in 39 states.
   After more than 20 years and $4 billion in scientific study, Abraham said in his letter to the president, "I have considered whether sound science supports the determination that the Yucca Mountain site is scientifically and technically suitable for the development of a repository. I am convinced that it does.
   "The results of this extensive investigation and the external technical reviews of this body of scientific work give me confidence for the conclusion, based on sound scientific principles, that a repository at Yucca Mountain will be able to protect the health and safety of the public when evaluated against the radiological protection standards adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency and implemented by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."
   Abraham said he also considered national compelling interests in making his recommendation, but "irrespective of any other considerations, I could not and would not recommend the Yucca Mountain site without having first determined that a repository at Yucca Mountain will bring together the location, natural barriers, and design elements necessary to protect the health and safety of the public."
   The General Accounting Office, however, in a report issued Dec. 21, 2001, said it believed any recommendation from the energy secretary regarding Yucca Mountain would be premature.
   "Once the president considers the site qualified for a license application and recommends the site to Congress, the Nuclear Waste Policy act requires DOE to submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission within five to eight months. DOE will be unable to submit an acceptable application to NRC within the statutory time frames for several years because of unresolved technical issues," GAO said.
   Because there is no national storage site, commercial nuclear power plant owners currently store about 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel in temporary storage at 72 plant sites in 36 states. The Department of Energy estimates it also has more than 100 million gallons of highly radioactive waste and 2,500 metric tons of spent fuel from the development of nuclear weapons and research activities in temporary storage. These wastes contain radioactive elements that remain active for hundreds of thousands of years.
   According to DOE, compelling national interests including energy and national security, homeland security, nuclear nonproliferation policy, and secure disposal of nuclear waste, among others, require development of a repository.
   Abraham, in addressing homeland security, said, "More than 161 million people live within 75 miles of one or more of these sites. The facilities housing these materials were intended to do so on a temporary basis. They should be able to withstand current terrorist threats, but that may not remain the case in the future. These materials would be far better secured in a deep underground repository at Yucca Mountain."
   Radioactive waste would be housed approximately 1,000 feet underground on federally controlled land and would have to be regulated for 10,000 years.
   Abraham concluded that not completing the site designation process and moving forward to licensing development of a repository, as mandated by Congress, "would be an irresponsible dereliction of duty."
   In 1987, Congress directed the secretary of energy to investigate and recommend to the president whether such a repository could be located at Yucca Mountain, which beat out nine other sites.
   According to DOE, scientists have excavated more than 200 pits and trenches to remove rocks and other material for direct observation; drilled more than 450 sampling boreholes; collected over 75,000 feet of core samples; collected and analyzed over 18,000 geologic and water samples; and constructed over 6-1/2 miles of tunnels to provide direct access to the rocks that would be used for the repository.
   In February 2001, DOE hired Bechtel SAIC Co., LLC, to manage the program and to reassess the technical work remaining at Yucca Mountain.
   The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in 1996, ruled that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act obligated DOE to start disposing of the spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants no later than Jan. 31, 1998. DOE could not meet the deadline and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held in another case that plant owners were entitled to damages resulting from the delay. DOE estimated damages at about $2 billion while the nuclear industry estimated damages at $50 billion.
   According to the General Accounting Office, DOE is not likely to meet its goal of opening the repository by the 2010 target date and does not have a reliable estimate of when, and at what cost, such a repository can be opened.
   In its September 2001 reassessment, Bechtel said sufficient time would not be available for DOE to obtain a license from NRC and construct enough of the repository to open it in 2010. DOE then began exploring alternatives, such as developing surface facilities for storing waste at the site until underground storage facilities could be constructed.
   President Bush is expected to act quickly to accept the energy secretary's recommendation. However, Nevada has said it would protest such a decision, meaning Congress would have 90 days to pass legislation to override the state's disapproval. If Congress fails to approve the president's action, another location would have to be found.