The Inyo Register

June 18, 2002

County sends for Yucca help

Inyo's position on proposed nuclear waste storage site sent to Senators Feinstein and Boxer


By Kevin McCormick

The Inyo County Board of Supervisors sent letters requesting support for Nevada's Yucca Mountain veto to California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein earlier this month, stating that the finding of site suitability was "premature", due to unresolved hydrology and transportation issues.

Approved on June 4, the letters briefly detail to both Senators why Inyo County hopes they will support the veto, which could be overridden as soon as July, through S.J. Res. 34. S.J. Res. 34, which has already made it past the Senate Energy Conunittee is "a resolution to override the State of Nevada veto of the Yucca Mountain repository," the letter says.

Inyo County drafted and sent the letter at the request of Senator Feinstein's office, explained Inyo County Yucca Mountain Assessment Office Project Coordinator Andrew Remus.

Boxer has already made her opinion known on the use of Yucca Mountain as nuclear waste storage. In a statement last January she called Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's site recommendation a "terrible and costly mistake." This was prior to President Bush's recommendation of the same.

According to Remus, 12 sites were originally chosen as possible permanent waste sites in the early eighties, and by 1987, the field was narrowed to three, one in Washington state, one in Texas, and Yucca Mountain. "'Under the Nuclear Waste Act, Yucca Mountain was the only site to be further analyzed," Remus said, explaining that the DOE cited, among other things, site remoteness and the lack of nearby aboveground water.

But while Yucca may sit in a desert, the letter said and Remus reiterated, underground water could conceivably be affected, and surface in Inyo County. Groundwater travel times and flow direction are two issues that require more study, the letter states.

A primary transportation route to Yucca Mountain runs through Inyo County and the impacts on the highway system have not yet been addressed, the letter continues. "Until these impacts ... have been addressed, the proposal cannot be placed in the context necessary to support a siting decision," it says.

Inyo has found an ally, it seems, in the United States Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which in its most recent reports, Remus said, found the technical basis for Yucca Mountain to be "weak to moderate."

Remus explained that Inyo County has requested studies from the department of energy to evaluate and address these concerns.

"Through the NEPA process, we requested that the Department of Energy, do further study of the hydrologic system and transportation," Remus said. "The county feels that the entire site recommendation process is premature."

Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Nevada had one opportunity to veto President Bush's recommendation, which they took. Congress can then override that veto, but, according to Remus, it must be overridden in both houses of Congress. Fifty-one votes will be needed to decline the veto in the Senate, Remus explained.

"If the anti-Yucca mountain contingent doesn't round up 51 votes to decline the override, the project goes forward," he said.

Even if the project goes forward, it will still be subject to annual appropriations in Congress, said Remus, unless they take the repository off the budget.

The Yucca Mountain Project, two decades old and counting, has found opposition from groups and leaders across the Western United States, including Las Vegas, Mayor Oscar Goodman, Nevada Senator Harry Reid, Boxer and the Utah State Congress, which drafted a resolution against Yucca Mountain last March.

The proposed proj ect has taken a beating in the media as well. Scientists recently told the Los Angeles Times that it's not a question of if the repository would leak, it's a question of when. "They don't know of any way to design a corrosion proof canister," Remus explained. Any nuclear waste repository, he added, has to be projected to hold for 10,000 years before it can be approved.

An alternative to the central storage location, Remus said, is destroying the waste at the plant where it was used, a technology that already exists. "A number of reactor sites are actually going to that because delays have caused real problems to power generators," Remus explained.

Proponents say, however, that Yucca Mountain will hold, and that one centralized storage unit would be far safer than the temporary sites where waste is currently stored across the country, especially after the events of last Sept. 11.

Remus doesn't buy the latter statement. "A comprehensive risk assessment hasn't been done to decide whether a central repository equates to less over-all risk," he said. "That's a hard thing to quantify,, especially in the post 9/11 era."

If one examines how the transfer to Yucca would function, Remus said, the fuel rods would be transferred to above ground storage at their current sites, then to above ground temporary, storage at Yucca Mountain, and finally underground. "There will obviously be a reduction in targets, but we're not getting anything significant for decades."

"That situation won't change for a long time," he said. "Let's not muddle the Yucca Mountain discussion with a national security discussion."

When one adds in the necessity of transporting the waste from around the country to Yucca Mountain, Remus indicated, it turns into trading risk for more risk. "It's one of, those highly malleable issues," he said