Las Vegas Weekly

Yucca Mountain Debate Shifts to Rule Writing

By Rob Bhatt
June 30, 1999

Proponents of nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain apparently do not think that a proposed repository could conform to guidelines that the Environmental Protection Agency considers established standards.

And attempts to take the EPA out of the process for setting environmental protection standards is the focus of debate now that the threat of a presidential veto has taken interim waste storage at the Nevada Test Site off the table.

Even though Congress in 1992 directed the NRC to base its design and operating rules for the repository on a set of EPA standards, the NRC released its proposed guidelines earlier this year. And now federal lawmakers who support locating a repository at Yucca Mountain want to take the EPA out of the standard setting process altogether.

"The EPA proposal is trying to put drinking water standards on ground water," says Chris Gallegos, press secretary for the repository supporter Pete Domenici (R.-N.M.). "This is seen as a showstopper for any repository."

This would be good news for anybody opposed to putting the repository at Yucca Mountain, some 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, were it not for attempts to exempt the proposal from EPA oversight.

Sen. Frank Murkowski (R.-Alaska) included a provision to remove the EPA from the standard setting process in the same bill that removed interim storage from the updated nuclear storage proposal. The bill was approved June 16 by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and may move to a debate before the full Senate this summer. Staffers for the president and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson are reviewing the bill to decide whether it would warrant a veto if it makes its way through both houses of Congress.

The proposed NRC rule would allow an annual dosage up to 25 millirems of radionuclides for people closest to the facility. This level falls well below the existing average nationwide background radiation of about 300 millirems from sources like the sun and other natural and manmade radiation generators. But it also exceeds standards the EPA established for a low-level nuclear waste storage outside Carlsbad, N.M.

EPA standards at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the storage facility for transuranic waste generated through nuclear weapons production, set a 15 millirem annual limit on exposure to people closest to the facility. Of this cumulative total, the EPA guidelines restrict tolerable exposure levels through groundwater to 4 millirems, based on limits established by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Most observers, including NRC engineers, say the most likely pathway for radioactive particles to escape a repository built at Yucca Mountain is through groundwater. Even if only half of the radionuclides originating from the site filtered into the underlying groundwater, that could result in releases of up to 12.5 millirems under the 25 millirem standard.

Gallegos contends that the Safe Drinking Water Act applies only to water coming out of the tap and not at the source. But Frank Marcinowski, associate director of the EPA's Radiation Protection Division, says the 4 millirem groundwater standard at WIPP is also based on the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Marcinowski says the EPA standards for Yucca Mountain are in the final stages of review and should be released this year. He declined to comment on whether the EPA is considering standards that are more restrictive than those proposed by the NRC. But he did say that it would be atypical for the EPA standards at Yucca Mountain to differ significantly for those established at WIPP.

"You have to have a good reason for allowing something different at a different site," he says.

In the meantime, DOE has yet to complete its site analyses before it officially decides whether to go forward with the nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain. Ultimately, the DOE will have to conform with NRC's rules for design, construction and operation, wherever it decides to store nuclear waste.

Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan characterizes the attempts to take the EPA out of the standard setting process as an attempt to avoid applying environmental standards to the proposed repository.

"The site should conform to the standards rather than trying to create standards that conform to the site," Bryan says.