Earth Day: Many issues on the table

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   With so many Americans simply struggling to survive, it's no wonder there is less time to focus on Earth Day. However, several key decisions by the Bush administration have caused not only members of Congress, but concerned citizens and government officials in several states to take notice.
   Since taking office, President Bush has taken numerous hits on policy decisions affecting the environment. Bush first withdrew from the Kyoto agreement, aimed at limiting worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Next, the administration canceled an agreement requiring automobile companies to focus on more fuel-efficient vehicles.
   Last Thursday, the Democratic-controlled Senate handed Bush a major defeat by voting to block drilling for oil and gas in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Bush administration also is encouraging drilling at more than 50 sites in the lower 48 states.
   According to the Nuclear Energy Information Service, the national energy bill currently being debated "is a total revitalization of the nuclear power industry at a time when they are most vulnerable to the reactor security aftershocks of 9/11."
   On Feb. 14, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recommended the president approve a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. The next day, Bush recommended approval of the site to Congress.
   DOE plans to use Yucca Mountain for disposal of 77,000 tons of high-level radioactive wastes and spent fuel from nuclear power plants throughout the United States and 42 countries. The repository is supposed to begin receiving wastes in 2010, however, it is not expected to meet that goal.
   After nearly 20 years of study and $7 billion in costs, the Department of Energy's contractor -- Bechtel/SAIC LLC. -- the General Accounting Office, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste, and other agencies have decided the project needs more study.
   In the interim, DOE is examining the option of storing high-level nuclear wastes above ground in surface facilities which can be expanded to handle larger volumes.
   Nevada has been locked in a bitter fight with Washington against the repository. Gov. Kenny Guinn said last Monday: "Yucca Mountain is not inevitable and Yucca Mountain is no bargaining chip. ... Yucca Mountain is not safe and it's not suitable and we will expose the Department of Energy's dirty little secrets ..."
   In 1987, Congress selected Yucca Mountain as the only site it would study for disposal of the waste. "The fact that the Yucca Mountain decision was made without any analysis of the transportation risks to the 123 million Americans in states through which this dangerous waste will travel is the dirty little secret," Gov. Guinn said.
   In South Carolina, Gov. Jim Hodges took a stand last week against Washington, vowing he will use state troopers to block shipments of 34 metric tons of plutonium from Rocky Flats in Colorado destined for Savannah River unless the federal government guarantees the plutonium will be removed from the state if plans to convert it to fuel for nuclear power plants collapse.
   The converted fuel was to go to two nuclear plants in North Carolina and South Carolina operated by Duke Energy Corp. In February, Duke told the NRC in a legal memorandum that events in the next six years could make it impossible to use the converted fuel, thus leaving South Carolina stuck with it.
   In Tennessee, DOE, Tennessee Valley Authority, and a consortium made up of Framatome ANP and Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. in Erwin, have entered into an agreement to blend down 33 metric tons of surplus bomb-grade uranium at NFS. TVA has contracted with Cameco Inc. of Canada to supply many more metric tons of uranium trioxide to be used at NFS as blendstock. The product will be moved primarily along Interstates 40 and 81. Fuel created in the process will be used at TVA's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama.
   Some of the surplus uranium will come from Oak Ridge, where construction has begun on a warehouse the size of four football fields which will hold up to 32,000 drums of bomb-grade uranium.