GAO, Nevada officials battle Yucca Mountain plan

Published February 1, 2002

The General Accounting Office (GAO) and Nevada state officials are mounting new challenges to the Bush administration’s plan to designate Yucca Mountain as permanent home for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.

Leaked report calls plan premature

A GAO draft report regarding the Yucca Mountain storage plan was leaked to the media on November 30. According to the GAO, the Bush administration would be premature to designate Yucca Mountain as the storage site for the nation’s nuclear waste.

The report asserted the Department of Energy (DOE) is still gathering and analyzing data on nearly 300 issues of concern, including the expected lifetime of manmade radiation barriers, the physical properties of Yucca Mountain itself, and the mathematical models used to evaluate the project’s planned performance.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is expected in early 2002 to formally recommend to President George W. Bush that Yucca Mountain be designated the permanent storage site for the nation’s nuclear waste.

The project is already significantly behind schedule, as legal and scientific challenges have hampered the search for a permanent nuclear waste storage site since Congress first authorized the search for such a site in 1982. According to the 1982 legislation, the Energy Department was supposed to begin accepting nuclear waste from various utility companies in 1998.

By formally recommending the Yucca Mountain site this winter, Abraham was hoping to make the facility operational by 2010. According to the GAO, however, the administration should not even begin thinking about a formal recommendation until all outstanding questions have been resolved, likely around four years from now.

“DOE is not ready to make a site recommendation because it does not yet have all of the technical information needed for a recommendation and a subsequent license application,” stated the GAO report.

Yucca Mountain proponents countered that the important issues have already been researched and resolved, and that it would be unnecessary and irresponsible to further delay the project until every minor detail is resolved.

In June 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency announced tougher new standards the administration would impose regarding low-level radiation leakage. Following that announcement, the DOE in August 2001 gave a favorable safety assessment of the Yucca Mountain facility even with respect to the tougher new standards. Proponents noted most of the outstanding issues cited by the GAO are relatively minor as compared to the primary issues already researched and resolved.

“GAO appears to be lumping all decision-making into one process, and that’s not the way it works,” said Nuclear Energy Institute Vice President Scott Peterson. “I don’t think the GAO report will have a major impact” on the Bush administration’s deliberations, he added.

GAO, administration disagree

The draft report, and the manner in which it was leaked to the press, raised eyebrows in light of the GAO’s ongoing battles with the Bush administration.

Last summer, the GAO threatened to sue the administration after Vice President Dick Cheney refused to hand over records relating to the administration’s formulation of its national energy policy. The clash was put on hold in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, but the bad blood remains. The fact that the Yucca Mountain plan is intricately tied to the administration’s energy policy was not lost on administration observers.

“While I have great respect for GAO, this kind of premature disclosure significantly, if not irreversibly, taints the work product of any inquiry by GAO or any other investigative body,” said Abraham. “This is especially disturbing in that the draft report is fatally flawed.”

Nevada challenges Energy Department

In a separate development, Nevada’s director of nuclear affairs announced the state plans to file a lawsuit challenging recently amended rules regarding Yucca Mountain.

The Energy Department changed its safety assessment rules, becoming effective December 14, to allow the Department to meet EPA’s tough new safety requirements through a combination of natural and man-made barriers. Prior to the Energy Department’s December 14 rules, the DOE was committed to demonstrating that nature alone could provide the necessary barriers to meet EPA’s requirements.

Nevada officials, who have consistently opposed the designation of any nuclear storage facility in their state, argued that when Congress in 1982 authorized the search for a permanent nuclear waste storage facility, it explicitly contemplated that geological features alone must be sufficient to prevent radiation leakage.

“The notion that geological features must be the primary form of containment is . . . explicitly required” by the 1982 legislation, argued Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn. Guinn further asserted that under the DOE’s new rules, an allegedly viable storage site could be constructed “on the shores of Lake Tahoe” or in a Washington DC federal office building.

“The Department should not be evaluating the suitability of the site based on rules that were transparently reconfigured at the eleventh hour because DOE could not meet the statutory demands of Congress nor the scientific recommendations” of other agencies, Guinn added.

DOE spokesperson Joe Davis countered that the new rules merely reflect technological advances that add to, rather than detract from, the overall safety of the proposed storage facility.

“We’re not relying specifically on engineered barriers to meet the regulations,” said Davis. “We are looking at the scientific evidence of both the geological and engineered barriers together to determine the site’s suitability. One doesn’t outweigh the other. They both work hand in hand.”

Proponents of the new rules point to several technological advances that have added to the safety of the proposed nuclear waste storage facility. Stronger and more corrosion-resistant canisters, for example, have been designed to combat fears water will seep through the rocks into the storage area. Drip shields have been designed to keep water from hitting the waste after the canisters disintegrate several hundred years from now. And new storage designs have been devised to combat high temperatures that may occur within the surrounding rock.

“We are basing the decision both on the science of the mountain and the engineered barriers that would be put in place,” explained Davis. “We believe we have to rely on both.”

Nevada seeks delay, observers question security

Earlier, Nevada had filed suit over proposed radiation standards. Robert Loux, Guinn’s top advisor on the proposed nuclear waste site, said the Nevada state government is prepared to file as many as five additional lawsuits in the coming months.

Loux said the state hopes to obtain injunctions against the federal government, prohibiting it from taking any additional steps in furtherance of its Yucca Mountain plans until all disputes have been resolved in the courts. Loux speculated it would take the federal appeals courts at least several months to decide all contested issues, and that the state would reserve the right to take its claims to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Industry observers warned that the endless legal and political wrangling over Yucca Mountain was placing the nation at unnecessary risk to further terrorist attacks. Yucca Mountain is the only permanent storage facility under consideration, as all other proposed sites have failed to match the mountain’s geological safety barriers.

While the legal and political wrangling continue, local energy companies have 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel in temporary storage at 72 different sites in 36 states. Security measures, not to mention radiation safety measures, are far less stringent in the dozens of temporary storage sites than they would be at a centralized location under a mountain of rock.