Editorial Opinion

Where I Stand: DOE Assessment of
Yucca Mountain a Deceptive Move


By Bob Loux
Executive Director
Nevada Agency For Nuclar Projects

Saturday, August 23, 1997


IF YOU CAN'T meet safety standards, change the standards. That's what Bob Loux, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, charges the U.S. Department of Energy with doing regarding the proposed high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

   WHAT DO YOU DO if you are a major federal agency intent on keeping a flawed and hemorrhaging pet program alive, but you cannot get the president to endorse changes in rules and regulations that you must have to make the project fly? If you are the U.S. Department of Energy, and the project is the deeply troubled Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository, you wage a deceptive and subversive campaign designed to dupe the president and the administration into accepting what you want.

   That is precisely what appears to be at the heart of DOE's so-called "Viability Assessment" for the Yucca Mountain program. In 1994, DOE, apparently without direct knowledge or approval of the White House, worked with the Senate Energy Committee to incorporate weakened health and safety requirements for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository into legislation designed to fast-track the program. The regulatory changes were needed because DOE's own research indicated that the site could not meet minimum health and safety standards.

   At issue were three crucial changes, without which Yucca Mountain cannot be found suitable or licensed as a repository for highly radioactive waste and spent fuel. First, DOE wanted the siting guidelines, which DOE established in 1984 for evaluating site suitability, to be eliminated. This would absolve DOE from having to show that geologic and hydrologic conditions at Yucca Mountain can meet specific criteria directly related to waste isolation. This posed a potentially insurmountable problem because, as DOE learned more about the site, it became apparent that conditions at Yucca Mountain would not qualify it as a repository under the existing guidelines.

   Second, DOE wanted the legislation to include language that would pre-empt the Environmental Protection Agency and have Congress (at the behest of the nuclear power industry and DOE) establish a very liberal radiation-exposure standard. This assault on the EPA continued an effort begun two years before, when DOE was successful in getting Congress to use the Energy Policy Act of 1992 to order the EPA to develop regulations that would do away with requirements governing radioactive carbon-14 releases that Yucca Mountain could not meet. When a new radiation standard complying with the 1992 law was recommended in 1994, DOE realized that the site would not be able to meet this minimum requirement either. So changing the regulation legislatively became imperative if Yucca Mountain were to be kept viable.

   Finally, DOE knew that it had to affect changes in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's regulations governing licensing of a repository for nuclear waste.

   Under existing NRC rules, DOE will have to demonstrate that Yucca Mountain is a safe location, and that the site can, in fact, isolate the material from the environment for a period exceeding 10,000 years before NRC will issue a license permitting DOE to load waste into the facility and begin operations. DOE recognized that it cannot demonstrate such performance, and changing the NRC requirements became imperative.

  The approach DOE is now pursuing would have NRC permit DOE to move all of the country's spent fuel and high-level waste to Yucca Mountain and put it underground for up to 100 years, essentially without a license. Only then would DOE finally have to demonstrate scientifically that the site was a safe and suitable one for long-term waste isolation. Not surprisingly, they make no mention of what happens if, after this "confirmatory period," DOE still cannot show that Yucca Mountain will effectively isolate the waste.

   When the president and his advisers in the White House learned of DOE's back-room dealings with Congress, then-Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary was called on the carpet and told that the president did not support the regulatory changes DOE was advocating. The president vowed to veto any bill that designated a specific location for an interim-storage facility and that weakened health, safety and environmental protections. The secretary was sent back to Congress to publicly recant support for DOE's own bill.

   Almost immediately, DOE set about to circumvent White House opposition. However, this time the plan was more subtle and downright subversive, in the strict sense of the term.

   In early 1996 (while O'Leary was still secretary), DOE announced another major program redirection, the centerpiece of which was a new milestone called a "Viability Assessment" to be completed by the fall of 1998. A concept entirely invented by DOE, with no basis in the legal, scientific or regulatory context for the Yucca Mountain program, the Viability Assessment was conceived as a means by which DOE could evaluate the project, not from the standpoint of legal and scientific "suitability," but from the perspective of what it will take to make Yucca Mountain work, i.e., make it "viable."

   In fact, what DOE is in the process of engineering with its fiction of a "Viability Assessment" is nothing short of a palace coup. DOE clearly intends to shoehorn the president and the White House into a situation where, by endorsing the Viability Assessment, they endorse, in concept, the rule changes and resultant weakening of health and safety requirements for a repository contained in legislation still pending before Congress.

   In the final analysis, DOE still desperately wants the legislation that the president has promised to veto and is willing to manipulate the White House and the entire federal regulatory structure to get it, regardless of the health and safety consequences.

   Already, both the U.S. General Accounting Office and the presidentially appointed Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board are on to DOE's game. Both bodies have criticized the Viability Assessment, noting that there is little real data about the conditions at Yucca Mountain, and that much of the existing data do not support

   DOE's assertions. It makes little difference what DOE concludes in the assessment. Having confidence in the project's "viability" will be impossible without lots more data.

   It is one thing for DOE to conspire with pro-Yucca Mountain senators and representatives on legislation that the administration openly opposes. It is quite another for a federal agency to engage in the kind of gamesmanship designed to mislead the president and the White House that the Viability Assessment represents.



Readers Note:  This Editorial Opinion was jointly published by the Las Vegas Review Journal and the Las Vegas Sun.   The opinion was published on Saturday, August 23, 1997.


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