Nevada Nuclear Agency Disputes Lehr’s Yucca Column

Published April 29, 2009

Bruce H. Breslow, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, writes that Jay Lehr’s May 2009 column in Environment & Climate News, “Yucca Mountain, Though on Hold, Would Be Very Safe,”  is “based on a number of apprehensions.”

Here’s Breslow’s letter:

The proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is far from “nearly completed,” as Lehr asserts. None of the tunnels to hold spent nuclear fuel have been dug and the work would take decades to complete.  The Department of Energy has spent close to $8 billion of a project that is projected by DOE to cost $96 billion, making it the most expensive public works project in world history.
Whatever the original reasons that drew the Department of Energy to Yucca Mountain, it soon discovered that the site had much more water than originally estimated, and it was moving much faster, too, to the point that it violated the department’s geologic criteria established in 1984. In accordance with the law, DOE should have returned to Congress for new instructions. Instead, it simply dropped its geologic criteria, and continued with the project hoping that the waste package could compensate for the inadequate site.
It turns out that even with a “miracle alloy” skin, the waste package is still susceptible to corrosion promoted by dripping water in the hot, oxygen-rich, harsh underground conditions. To protect the package DOE dreamed up a titanium alloy “drip shield” (DOE’s name), a five-ton cover for each waste package—11,000 in all.

The catch is that DOE does not plan to install the drip shields for at least 100 years. Due to the conditions in the tunnel at that time, this would require robots to install. It is preposterous to rely on this; in fact it will likely be physically impossible to install the drip shields in deteriorating tunnels and in 100 years Congress may not want to spend the $10-billion-to-$15-billion to install the shields.
Moreover, the engineered systems are not “redundant” at all. Redundant means that the system does not fail if any one subsystem fails. Without the drip shield, DOE cannot meet federal radiation dose standards of 15 millirem per year during the first several thousand years, and there is no backup. 
Lehr writes, “The robust waste packages, which are to be partly surrounded by crushed volcanic rock, are expected to resist corrosion in the environment inside Yucca Mountain for hundreds of thousands of years because of these combined natural and manmade barriers.”

There is no plan for “crushed rock,” and so far only DOE makes claims about “hundreds of thousands of years.” The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not even reviewed its technical analysis. DOE’s own analysis in its license application shows that without the drip shield (at this point essentially an imaginary barrier) the radioactive leakage exceeds federal standards in less than a thousand years.
It is well to remember that when Lehr says “scientists believe they can calculate how well and how long the repository can keep the nuclear materials isolated from the environment,” or that “scientists predict exposure will not exceed . . .,” he is speaking of scientists on DOE’s payroll.

 These are not independent scientists performing investigations in which they have no stake in the outcome. Their work is more accurately described as litigation support for DOE’s lawyers who seek a facility license from Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Nevada’s scientists are very critical of DOE’s work. Until the NRC reviews the technical issues, and Nevada has the opportunity to subject DOE’s expert witnesses to cross examination, the DOE’s technical conclusions are nothing more than the initial claims of a license applicant.