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Continued opposition by the Clinton administration to a bill creating a temporary disposal site for high-level nuclear waste is likely to spell defeat for such legislation, despite strong efforts of some members of Congress and nuclear waste generators, according to testimony at a February 10 hearing.
The House Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power held a hearing February 10 on H.R. 45, a bill that evoked strong opposition from Nevada lawmakers and the state's governor, as well as administration officials from the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
But representatives of nuclear waste generators and many of the subcommittee's members voiced support at the hearing for the bill, which already has at least 85 co-sponsors. H.R. 45 would establish a temporary storage site in Nevada beginning in 2003 for high-level nuclear waste until a permanent site at Yucca Mountain - also in Nevada - is opened, which is expected in 2010.
Representatives Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) introduced the legislation January 6, resurrecting similar legislation that passed the House in 1997, but died in the Senate in 1998 in the face of a presidential veto threat.
Clinton administration officials repeated their concerns that the bill would divert attention and resources from opening the permanent repository at Yucca Mountain by 2010. An EPA official also said that health protections in the bill are not adequate.
Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn (R) testified that the citizens of Nevada are not convinced of the safety of an interim site or the Yucca Mountain repository, especially given the fact that the two sites lie in a seismically active region. Over the last 20 years, more than 621 earthquakes were recorded in the area with magnitudes greater than 2.5 on the Richter Scale. One earthquake of a 5.6 magnitude rating occurred in 1992, 12 miles from the Yucca Mountain site, causing damage to the repository's support facilities.
Federal lawmakers representing Nevada also testified in opposition to the legislation. Representative James Gibbons (R-Nev.) told the subcommittee that the legislation is a "death sentence on Nevada."
Alternative Sites Considered?
But many members of the subcommittee support the bill, and in fact are co-sponsors of the legislation, including Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), who chairs the panel.
Barton criticized the Department of Energy for failing to abide by its obligation under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act to begin accepting for disposal spent nuclear fuel generated at commercial nuclear plants by January 1998.
Barton asked Lake Barrett, DOE's acting director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, whether it is DOE's position to remain out of compliance with the law by not accepting the nuclear industry's spent fuel.
Barrett replied that DOE would like to fulfill its obligation under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, but that there is no facility open to dispose of the waste.
Barton then asked Barrett whether DOE has considered using the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which is licensed to accept transuranic waste, as an interim storage facility.
"It is not under consideration, but the statute says we're clear to look at only one permanent site," Barrett replied.
Focusing on a permanent repository is the only aspect of the law DOE is complying with, Barton quipped.
Divided Attention to Cause Delays
Barrett testified that the Upton-Towns bill would force the focus of DOE's waste management policy away from Yucca Mountain to a short-term solution.
"The bill would undermine our ability to open the repository as scheduled in 2010 by potentially shifting budget priorities and work effort to an interim storage facility," Barrett said. The bill implies a year-long delay of DOE's submission of a license application to NRC by 2003.
In addition, DOE is skeptical that the funding provisions in H.R. 45 would provide enough money to support construction and operation of an interim storage facility while maintaining the Yucca Mountain schedule, Barrett said. The bill could result in a funding gap of more than $1 billion, he said.
Finally, establishing an intermediate facility at the Nevada Test Site assumes that Yucca Mountain will be found suitable as a permanent repository, Barrett said. Although DOE's recent viability assessment of Yucca Mountain found "no show stoppers," more evaluation is critical before DOE gives its recommendations to the President in 2001, Barrett said.
"H.R. 45 would undermine public confidence that a repository evaluation will be objective and technically sound, and jeopardize the credibility of any future decision on the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site," Barrett said.
Safety Standards at Yucca Mountain
The Upton-Towns bill states that the interim facility will not have any bearing on the acceptance of the permanent repository at Yucca Mountain. But the bill sets forth licensing and safety standards for the permanent repository at Yucca Mountain if approved.
EPA Assistant Administrator Robert Perciasepe criticized the bill's health protections as inadequate. The bill proposes that radiation exposure to an average resident near Yucca Mountain should not exceed 100 millirem a year. It also bars EPA from establishing a safety standard for the permanent repository.
Perciasepe, head of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, said that the 100 millirem level far exceeds EPA's target cancer risk. The lifetime risk of a person developing a fatal cancer as a result of exposure to 100 millirem/year is about 1 in 500. Perciasepe said EPA sets standards that range between 1 in 10,000 and 1 in 1 million.
EPA's current generic standard for disposal of spent nuclear fuel is set at 15 millirem a year, which poses a lifetime cancer risk of about 3 in 10,000, he said.
In addition, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that technical standards for Yucca Mountain include a release standard of 2 millirem to 20 millirem a year.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests a 2.5 millirem level for Yucca Mountain. NRC officials who testified at the subcommittee hearing said the NRC and EPA levels are similar, and the minor difference between the two reflects different assumptions on risk assessments.
However, NRC Commissioner Shirley Jackson said that EPA's standard is lower because EPA included an additional safety factor to account for ground water protection. But NRC's standard has ground water protection built in, Jackson said.
Barton defended the 100 millirem standard in the bill as safe, citing a recent study that the levels of radiation at the door of the Library of Congress measure above 100 millirem.
Perciasepe said he was not familiar with the study and said he supports NAS' recommendation of a range between 2 millirem and 20 millirem.
Industry Support Bill
Critics of the bill testified at the hearing that Congress is trying to bail out nuclear waste generators, which already are suffering from competition from electricity deregulation.
But the nuclear power industry representatives place the burden of the nuclear waste it is generating squarely on the Department of Energy, which is supposed to be finding a permanent repository for the high-level waste.
David Joos, president and chief executive officer of Michigan-based Consumers Energy, offered testimony on behalf of the Nuclear Energy Institute, urging the Clinton administration to honor its commitments and legal obligations to begin managing used nuclear fuel from commercial and defense facilities.
Joos said it does not make sense to store spent nuclear fuel at 78 sites in 35 states when a central disposal site is an option.
The Energy and Power Subcommittee has not yet scheduled a markup for H.R. 45.
Copyright © 1999 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Washington D.C.