PLAN TO BURY NUCLEAR WASTE IN NEVADA MOVES FORWARD
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
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
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
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
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
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 http://domino.ymp.gov/va/va.nsf/.