Yucca Mountain hearings moved to discourage trouble

28 September 2001

The threat of protest has forced the first hearing on the suitability of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada to relocate from a Las Vegas hotel to an energy department.

The department postponed two additional hearings that had been planned in other cities around the state after Gov Kenny Guinn criticised the Energy Department for holding it only 15 days after DoE issued its 300-page, preliminary site suitability report, thus giving hearing participants little time to scrutinise the document. Guinn has vowed to take his complaints to President Bush.

Robert Loux, executive director of Nevada’s Nuclear Waste Project Office, had also threatened to file a suit over the hearings, which the state believes cannot be held until DoE issues a final environmental impact statement on the site.

The DoE report upholds earlier scientific findings on Yucca Mountain’s suitability and concludes the site would meet Environmental Protection Agency and Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards.

Joe Colvin, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, called the DoE report, “the capstone scientific document of an extensive site characterisation effort that has spanned nearly two decades at a cost of $7 billion.” “Most significantly, the report clearly demonstrates there is a scientific basis for making a decision to proceed to the next steps,” Colvin said.

The preliminary site suitability report, and comments received from the public and regulatory and scientific bodies, will serve as the basis for DoE’s final determination. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is expected to forward his recommendation to President Bush later this year. If the President then upholds a favourable Yucca Mountain recommendation, and Congress does not exercise a veto, DoE has said previously that it would apply in 2003 to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a licence to begin building the repository. The Nuclear Energy Institute is concerned, however, that the date could slip, pushing the start of deep-underground waste disposal operations beyond 2010.

The NRC on 7 September, meanwhile, approved criteria that would be applied when evaluating a licence application. As required by law, NRC will require that a repository at Yucca Mountain meet US Environmental Protection Agency standards. The EPA standards require that the engineered barrier system should be designed to work in combination with natural barriers so that, for 10,000 years following disposal, the expected radiation dose to an individual would not exceed 15 millirems per year. Consistent with EPA policy, a separate standard is also established for groundwater at 4 mrem per year to the whole body or any organ. Initially, NRC had proposed an all-pathways dose limit of 25 mrem a year, with no separate groundwater protection standard.

The site is fiercely opposed in Nevada. State Senator Harry Reid said he was concerned about the volume of trains and trucks carrying radioactive materials from other states to the site. Nuclear waste is now stored at the sites of nuclear plants, and Reid is pushing for this to continue, using the special caskets that have been developed to transport the wastes.

Reid asked President Bush to order Spencer Abraham to attend the hearings, after complaining that he didn’t attend the first one. “My overall concern is that they aren’t even trying to be fair,” he said.

Exelon said that failure to resolve the nuclear repository issue was hampering plans to build new plants. “Disposition of used fuel is a huge issue and could impact on investment decisions,” said a company spokesman.



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