Pahrump Valley Times

NRC gets cynical reception at Beatty

Licensing standards at YMP raise anxiety level in community


April 2, 1999

BEATTY - When the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository Project first got started, the U.S. Department of Energy qnd other agencies involved could pretty well count on a warm, if cautious, reception in Beatty. But the audience at Thursday's meeting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission peppered the panel with questions and comments laced with cynicism and anxiety, taking the meeting almost an hour beyond its scheduled adjournment.

In part, the change in the tone of the welcome might be attributed to the fact that few of those present were from Beatty. Several counties sent representatives, as did the state and several organizations interested in the issue of nuclear waste.

The purpose of the meeting was to seek public comment on proposed licensing standards for Yucca Mountain (with DOE being the licensee) - the standards that will determine whether the repository is considered safe enough to license.

Rather than specifying a limit amount of radiation that might be released from the repository if problems should develop, the NRC's proposal is to establish a minimum acceptable dosage of 25 millirem per year (about one twelfth the average natural background radiation in the U.S.) to the "critical group" most likely to be affected, consisting, basically, of people living an agrarian lifestyle in Amargosa Valley, twelve miles from Yucca Mumanin, drinking ground water and eating a lot of locally grown food.

The proposed standards require that the repository be designed so that its engineered and natural barriers and other controls would "seek to prevent" the specified dosage from being exceeded off site during its period of active operation and for, 10,000 years after it is closed, even if someone inadvertently drilled a "single, nearly vertical borehole into the repository and penetrated the waste package all the way to the saturated zone."

Nye County Regulatory Licensing Advisor Mal Murphy said that the county "would appreciate a standard based on releases rather than doses, but we realize that prerogative was removed by Congress. We agree that this is a reasonable approach, but not the best." He added that ground water is an extremely important commodity in the area, and that the county feels further protection of ground water is needed.

Inyo County representative Brad Mettam also advocated the inclusion of a specific groundwater standard. He said he does not believe that the method being used to establish the standard was well enough established to be reliable.

The audience seemed even less sure that the repository could be certified as safe. George Younghans, of Beatty, commented that the DOE hadn't even been able to predict the movement of contaminants from weapons testing that ceased only seven years ago, and he questioned the department's ability to make predictions about a repository expected to contain dangerous material for 10,000 years.

Ralph McCracken, of Amargosa, said any farmer understands containment: "If your hose doesn't leak, you've got containment. You're offering us a leaky mountain."

He also pointed out that the model the standards were based on assumed the "critical group" would use water from wells no more than 100 meters deep, but there are wells deeper than that already in use in Amargosa Valley, and new technology has made deeper wells more likely,

Some of the issues raised by the audience were outside the scope of the standards for the repository itself, including the issue of transporting the waste to the site. The Louden family, owners of the Crescent Valley Mineral Hot Springs, drove 300 miles to express their fears about having trains carrying nuclear waste passing within a mile of their place.

Nancy Louden labeled those who benefit from nuclear power then ship the waste somewhere else, as seIfish, shortsighted and greedy. "People are learning that it isn't right to exploit and kill people of other races. Now they have to learn that it isn't right to exploit and kill people who live in less densely populated areas."

Many other questions were raised. Among the other items of major concern were the idea of eventually closing the site so that the waste could not be retrieved, and that of putting a limit on the time that the site's performance would be monitored.

One audience member, doubted the wisdom of trusting in the projections of engineer as to whether the repository would leak, pointing out that "they said the Titanic couldn't sink-"

The public comment period on the. proposed standards is scheduled to end May 10, although there have been requests for an extension.