Energy Daily
Energy Daily

Yucca Critics Rip New EPA Standards


Thursday, August 11, 2005

Yucca critics tore into the newly revised radiation safety standards for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository Wednesday, saying they are more lenient than comparable limits set in other countries and permit dangerously high exposures when any radioactive leakage would likely peak.

The criticism clashes sharply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s portrayal of the proposed standard, released late Tuesday, which limits the amount of radioactivity that could leak from the repository into groundwater.

EPA said the new standard would limit radiation doses to people near Yucca to levels that many Americans already receive from natural radiation sources, such as cosmic rays and radon gas.

The new standard was issued by EPA in response to a federal court ruling last year that tossed out the agency’s initial standards for the repository as too lax. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said EPA had to set a standard covering repository operations over several hundred thousand years, rather than for only 10,000 years, as provided for by EPA’s initial standard.

The court ruling virtually halted progress on the Yucca project, which was already limping due to budget woes and continued opposition from Nevada officials.

Yucca is crucial to the nuclear industry as the intended disposal site for tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel and nuclear waste currently stored at dozens of nuclear plants other sites across the country.

The radiation standard is key because the Energy Department—which is responsible for building and running Yucca—must prove to the NRC that the repository can meet EPA’s safety standards before NRC will license Yucca.

For the first 10,000 years of repository operation, EPA’s new plan would retain the agency’s initially proposed standard, which set a maximum radiation exposure limit of 15 millirem (mrem) per year for individuals living in the vicinity of the underground repository.

However, for operations following the initial 10,000-year compliance period, the agency would set a far more lax standard extending out 1 million years. That standard would set a maximum exposure of 350 mrem per individual per year.

In the proposed rule, EPA said Americans in many states are exposed to natural, background radiation far greater than would be permitted at Yucca under the new standard.

For instance, “Colorado’s average annual background radiation is estimated at 700 mrem/yr,” EPA said.

Moreover, many “other states have comparable or...higher background levels with which people live routinely,” EPA said. The agency cited North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa, for example, with estimated average annual exposures of 789 mrem, 963 mrem and 784 mrem, respectively.

But that argument does not satisfy Arjun Makhijani, president of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) and a frequent critic of the federal agencies that regulate the nuclear industry.

“The EPA now has the dubious distinction of proposing a standard that would be the worst in the Western world, by far,” said Makhijani in a press release late Tuesday. “No Western program explicitly allows as large as 350 millirem per year at the time of peak dose.”

Moreover, IEER said the revised standard seems tailored to fit Yucca Mountain so that it can be licensed, rather than designed to protect human health. IEER pointed to a 1998 DOE presentation to the congressionally-mandated Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which estimated the maximum dose from Yucca Mountain was expected to be 200 to 300 mrem annually after several hundred thousand years.

“This is just under the proposed limit” set by EPA Tuesday, IEER noted.

An EPA spokesman declined comment Wednesday on any criticism of the proposed rule, which is open to public comment for the next 60 days.

Yucca backers remained quiet yesterday, with the industry trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), saying it would issue a statement later this week.

However, Yucca supporters may be hoping that a congressional fix to the radiation standard problem will avert what is likely to be a prolonged new fight over the revised EPA standard.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), is widely rumored to be considering introduction of a “fix-Yucca” bill this fall that would solve a variety of problems dogging the project. Among rumored provisions are a measure absolving EPA of the need to set a standard that extends beyond 10,000 years, and certain budget fixes.

Absent congressional action, the new rule is certain to be bashed by Nevada officials.

Joseph Egan, a Virginia-based lawyer who represents the state, called the standard a “really reprehensible proposal.”

EPA has proposed “a standard that is 100 times more lax for effluence from Yucca than compared to effluence from a nuclear plant...,” Egan said.

Llewellyn King, Publisher.