Great Seal of the The State of Nevada

One Hundred One North Carson Street
Carson City, Nevada 89701


The Honorable Spencer Abraham
Secretary of Energy
Washington, DC 20585

January 24, 2002

Dear Secretary Abraham:

I was disappointed, to say the least, with your letter notifying me of your intent to recommend to President Bush approval of the Yucca Mountain site for the development of the nation's high level nuclear waste repository. Framing the decision in part as a "security" issue was somewhat surprising, since no analysis has ever been done to suggest that Yucca Mountain will contribute to national security.

It appears that the Department of Energy is the only entity familiar with the facts at Yucca Mountain that does not see your decision as premature. As you know, your own contractor Bechtel/SAIC, as well as the General Accounting Office, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste, the Yucca Mountain Technical Review Board, the National Academy of Sciences, and, recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency, have each concluded that significant additional studies need to be performed before DOE can seriously consider whether to recommend the Yucca Mountain site for permanent nuclear waste disposal. For example, NRC has indicated that at least 292 major studies remain to be completed in 19 key areas, including corrosion of the waste packages, potential effects of volcanic activity, rapid groundwater flow rates through the mountain, large uncertainties in predicted repository performance, even the very design of the repository itself.

In particular, many of the organizations noted above have commented on DOE's newly improvised "total system" approach to nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, an approach that appears designed to ignore the blatant unsuitability of the geology at Yucca Mountain for the isolation of radioactive waste. As you know, Nevada has taken legal action against DOE over this very issue on the grounds that DOE has abandoned the Nuclear Waste Policy Act's requirement that geologic isolation must be the primary form of containment. We know, as you do, that DOE retroactively changed its site suitability rules when it learned that the mountain's natural site features could not safely contain the waste. At the very least, the D.C. Court of Appeals should be allowed to rule on the merits of that action before any recommendation is made.

For the reasons set forth below, I respectfully disagree with each of your articulated reasons for rushing forward with Yucca Mountain.

Security Against Terrorism. This new rationale for rushing forward with Yucca Mountain was invented by DOE and the nuclear industry in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. But what this rationale fails to acknowledge is that even if the Yucca Mountain project moves forward, spent fuel will continue to be stored at reactor sites across America for at least the next 50 years. Even on an optimistic schedule, Yucca Mountain will not be capable of receiving most of the waste for decades. Indeed, once at the site, much of the spent fuel will be stored above ground for the next 100 years. Instead of reducing any terrorist threat, rushing forward will actually significantly increase the potential threat by adding a massive new aboveground site in Nevada, in addition to the more than 100,000 shipments of spent fuel that will travel through the nation's cities. Upon examination of the facts, the terrorism argument does not ring true.

National Security. Yucca Mountain is not, and has never been, about national security and nuclear nonproliferation, as you suggest. Spent nuclear fuel and waste products do not pose a non-proliferation threat, since they do not contain separated fissile materials that can be utilized for nuclear weapons. If you mean to suggest that if Yucca Mountain does not open, the United States will be unable to dismantle its nuclear weapons or operate its nuclear submarines, I believe this is misleading. For example, I understand that DOE is currently building a brand new spent fuel storage facility in Idaho to house foreign research reactor spent fuel, and that this will be accomplished in a matter of only two years. If this can be done so readily to aid our foreign trading partners, I'm sure it can also be done to keep our nation secure should such a need arise.

Energy Security. During the next several decades, Yucca Mountain will contribute nothing to the nation's energy security. Nuclear plants across the nation are building inexpensive and safe dry storage facilities for their spent fuel, and successfully renewing their licenses as a result. They will continue to do this regardless of whether Yucca Mountain proceeds or not, since, even under the best of conditions, Yucca Mountain could not provide storage for several decades. DOE has even agreed with one utility, PECO Energy, to take title to its fuel on site, and to purchase and operate its storage facility.

Environmental Protection. It is simply untrue to suggest that Yucca Mountain is stalling cleanup of the nation's defense nuclear facilities. These sites are contaminated with massive quantities of low-level radioactive waste, which Yucca Mountain will not accept at any time. Higher-level transuranic wastes are already going into the successful repository at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico. DOE rejected efforts to develop additional low-level waste disposal sites in several states for defense cleanup activities. If environmental protection is DOE's main concern, perhaps the Department should explain to Nevadans why we should tolerate an uncertainty factor of 10,000 in the radiation dose projections for the Yucca Mountain repository system. Our slot machines have better odds than that.

Though you've clearly made up your mind, I remain hopeful that President Bush, when he receives your recommendation, will keep his promise to me and Nevada not to push the Yucca Mountain project forward against the imperatives of sound science. If that is not the case, however, please rest assured that Nevada will continue to pursue every means available to ensure that science and the law will ultimately prevail.