Reno Gazette-Journal

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Articles on Yucca Mountain inaccurate

W. John Arthur III

Monday, March 15, 2004

Two Gazette-Journal articles (both on Feb. 19) present an inaccurate picture o an important, complex national program, the Yucca Mountain Project. I am referring to the articles about comments by Paul ' Craig, a former member of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, and William Barnard, the board's executive' director.

The mandate of the board, whose 11 members the president appoints, is to evaluate the technical and scientific validity of activities undertaken by the secretary of Energy as they relate to the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. We meet' with the full board and with topic-specific board panels throughout the year. We take what they say seriously. Therefore, the inaccuracies and misstatements in your stories call for a clarification of basic facts about the proposed repository and our relationship with the boar

Waste to be placed in the repository cannot "leak" because it is not liquid. The waste will be either: ceramic pellets, resistant to degradation and covered with a corrosion-resistant metal cladding, or a former liquid "vitrified" into a hard glass form.

The issue is that in the future water will reach the repository and cause the waste canisters, cladding and ceramic or glass material to deteriorate - and then to move the waste, bit by bit, through the rock some thousands of years later. DOE has spent more than 20 years studying how much water. might reach the waste, how, fast and what can be done to minimize it.

The two decades we have worked on the repository program can hardly be descried as "rushing ahead." In fact, several utilities have filed suit against DOE for going too slowly.

In the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Congress required the proposed repository to use a system of multiple barriers, i.e., both natural and man-made. Working together, these barriers would protect the waste from potential moisture and slow any waste movement.

We never assumed that the mountain itself would be the only barrier to waste movement. It is prudent to use sturdy, corrosion-resistant materials to contain the waste. Double-walled waste packages will be structured to last for thousands of years. They will have a thick inner vessel - stainless steel - for structural strength, plus an outer metal barrier highly resistant to corrosion - Alloy-22. Yucca Mountain provides a location that would be isolated, dry and secure, which would protect these waste packages and isolate the waste from the accessible environment.

We are reviewing the board's recent report on waste package corrosion and have requested the opportunity to discuss the report with the full board when we complete our evaluations.

Your articles misrepresent our relationship with the board. We have had an ongoing dialogue with the board since its inception in 1987. They and other scientific and regulatory bodies bring fresh insight on this project. Our interactions involve an ongoing exchange of ideas that improve the path forward for the proposed repository. Indeed, we have changed the design and thermal strategy in response to board concerns.

We believe our changes have addressed the board's issues, but we understand that scientific opinion can differ. Nevertheless, we will continue to work with the board and our regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to ensure that we develop a design that protects <human health and the environment by meeting the stringent standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency for the proposed repository.

W. John Arthur III is the deputy director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Repository Development in Las Vegas.