New York Times -- Saturday, December 19, 1998
by Matthew L. Wald

WASHINGTON -- The Energy Department reported Friday that it had found "no show stoppers" so far to block its plan to bury much of the United States' nuclear waste in the Nevada desert near Las Vegas and that it was on schedule to make a formal recommendation to the president by 2001.

In what it called its "viability assessment" released Friday, however, the department did identify major gaps in its knowledge of the geology of the site, Yucca Mountain. But officials promised to answer questions raised by scientists outside the department about water in the mountain, the most probable means by which radioactive contamination could escape beyond the site.

The energy secretary, Bill Richardson, said in a telephone interview, "The fact that no show stoppers have been identified is a step forward."

"We are admitting additional work is needed," Richardson added, "but it's in the national interest to proceed forward."

Opponents of the plan, however, say that enough problems with Yucca Mountain are known to disqualify it as a nuclear-waste repository. A coalition of 219 environmental organizations submitted a petition to the agency last month saying that even in the Nevada desert, rain will percolate through the mountain in a few decades, picking up radioactive material on the way.

Then, environmentalists argue, the water will travel horizontally to wells beyond the site over hundreds of years, yet quickly enough to deliver the materials while they are still dangerously radioactive.

A statement from Public Citizen, the organization founded by Ralph Nader that helped organize the 219 groups, said, "We object to the content of the report for its optimistic conclusions."

But Ernest Moniz, the energy undersecretary, said one of the gaps in knowledge was how fast water would move underground, and how much it would dilute any radioactive contaminants. The estimates in the report might be "too conservative" or too pessimistic, he said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent federal agency, is supposed to decide whether to grant a license for construction of the repository, based on criteria set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, however, has not yet set rules, one of the reasons the process is uncertain.

The report included, for the first time, a preliminary design for the proposed repository on the edge of the Nevada Test Site where the Energy Department used to explode nuclear bombs. The department, under tremendous pressure because it missed a deadline of February 1998 to begin accepting waste from nuclear-powered reactors, hopes to open a repository in 2010, with waste being loaded until 2033.

The documents released Friday anticipated sealing the repository in 2116, but raised the possibility of keeping the tunnels through the mountain open for 300 years, until 2316, to ensure that the radioactive material was not leaking.

The department said it would cost $18.7 billion to license and build the repository and to load it with more than 70,000 tons of waste from power plants and bomb factories. The costs in 1998 dollars, including expenses since 1983 and 100 years of monitoring, would be $43 billion, the department said.

The money would come from a tenth-of-a-cent-per-kilowatt-hour charge that the department collects from nuclear utilities, which should be enough to pay for the whole program, officials said Friday. But in exchange for the fee, the department was supposed to have begun accepting wastes last February; now it faces penalties for being late, under contracts it signed with utility companies.

The period of maximum exposure, said the report, is after 300,000 years. At that point, the report estimated, doses to people drinking from wells 12 miles away would be about 300 millirem a year, which would be about equal to present-day radiation from natural sources.

That would be 10 to 20 times higher than the limits now being discussed, but no one has decided yet whether radiation-protection standards should have to extend so far into the future. The debate over Yucca Mountain may focus on a more immediate future, of a few thousand years.

The viability assessment on the Yucca Mountain Project is available on the Web at