NEVADA AGENCY FOR NUCLEAR PROJECTS
The Policy Context and the Appeal of the 'Quick Fix'
From the outset, federal policy and legislation governing the management of high-level radioactive
waste has been buffeted by political winds, subjected to constantly changing congressional and
executive branch directives, and afflicted with continual organizational and management
instability. The original Nuclear Waste Policy Act depended upon a very complicated and
politically delicate set of compromises that governed site screening; site characterization; states,
tribes and public participation; environmental compliance, licensing and other key issues and
activities. When it became apparent that DOE had managed the program in such as way as to do
serious harm to the fabric of the original Act, Congress acted in 1987 to "fix" the program by
simply discarding elements considered burdensome or politically difficult (such as the requirement
to characterize three sites to provide alternatives, and the provision for two repositories to assure
regional equity, among others).
The decision in 1987 to study only the Yucca Mountain site as a possible repository location,
despite the known problems with that site and in the face of the State of Nevada's firm opposition,
was considered by its proponents in Congress and DOE as a way of streamlining the overly
cumbersome NWPA and putting the program back on track and on schedule. Eight years later,
however, DOE's HLW program remains mired in technical, administrative, organizational, and
political gridlock. Simply stated, the 1987 amendments did not address the basic causes of the
policy and programmatic failures of the preceding years. As a result, even though the program
was simplified with its focus on only one disposal site, it remained beset by the same systemic
problems that brought about the collapse of the original effort.
During the past two years, the same dynamic of changing policy and organizational restructuring
has dominated the federal program, and calls for yet another congressional "fix" have escalated.
The new Program Approach (PPA)(2) embarked upon by DOE during 1994 and the consequent
reconceptualization of the repository as a phased pilot project lasting over 100 years before major
waste isolation decisions would be final are the latest in a series of administrative program
restructurings that have been a constant feature of the program since 1987. The recurrent
criticisms of DOE's program by the U.S. Government Accounting Office and GAO's calls for
comprehensive and meaningful review are reminiscent of similar advice heard - and ignored - prior
The legislation introduced by Senator Johnston in January, 1995 to once again "get the program
back on track" again seeks to simplify the program without addressing the fundamental problems
and failures that have afflicted the undertaking from the beginning. As a team of the Agency's
researchers have pointed out in a publication independent of their work for the State of Nevada,
"The [DOE HLW program] ... is failing badly, beset by technical difficulties, poor management,
scientific uncertainties, cost overruns, equivocal political support, state opposition, and profound
public distrust and antipathy. It is doubtful the existing program or its managers can overcome
these obstacles in its current mission to site a HLW repository. The Proposed Program Approach
is as much of an admission of failure as we can expect given DOE's congressional mandate and
their institutional history."(3)
Attempting to remedy the program without first recognizing that past failures stem directly from
fundamental flaws in federal policy and program implementation - as the Johnston legislation
would do - is to continue to institutionalize the seeds of the next policy and programmatic failure
into any new "fix."
The Agency's experience with the HLW program over the past ten years has provided valuable
insights about how nuclear waste management can be accomplished over the long term. For one
thing, we have found that, to be successful and to sustain the political and executive will needed
to implement a successful program, there must be public support for and acceptance of any HLW
facilities that are contemplated, and that support cannot simply be seen as a congressional
contrivance, but must extend to the state, community and citizen levels. We also have learned
that alternative technologies can be employed to allow sufficient time for waste disposal solutions
and sites to be identified and developed. For example, the concept of on-site, dry storage of spent
reactor fuel - a fledgling and uncertain technology in 1983, is now widely accepted and used as a
routine waste management strategy. Yet, the urgency and priority placed on development of a
repository does not reflect this changing reality.
The principal lesson of the past ten years is that expedient "fixes" done for political purposes tend
to create more problems than they solve. The current proposal to substitute one simplistic
approach for another appears to be a continuation of the process that has resulted in the current
state of nuclear waste affairs.
Current Site Characterization Work - Serious Technical Deficiencies
Intensive Agency oversight of and involvement with DOE technical site characterization activities
seems to confirm that there are serious technical problems with the proposed Yucca Mountain
site, and, disturbingly, that DOE's program continues to be designed to avoid or, at best,
obfuscate some of the more serious site suitability issues. Combined with continuing problems
with DOE's quality assurance program and the implementation of that program by key
contractors, the situation is approaching the point where crucial information needed to determine
site performance and to support a license application could be lost.
This issue is symbolized by the continuing debate over the "pneumatic pathways" issue.(4) Despite
general acknowledgment of the need to collect pneumatic data prior to the intrusion of the tunnel
boring machine into the crucial subsurface area around the repository block, DOE has been
unwilling to make schedule and operational adjustments required to deal with the issue or to
allocate resources for necessary studies. The very real possibility exists that data, which could be
collected, will be unavailable for determining whether or not the pneumatic characteristics of the
site will contribute to or seriously impair (as the Agency believes) Yucca Mountain's inherent
potential for waste isolation.
There are also disturbing indications of serious deficiencies in the way site characterization work
is being carried out. While implementing scientific studies and collecting data on the suitability of
Yucca Mountain for permanent waste disposal is the stated objective for site characterization, the
work that is being carried out and the priorities assigned to site characterization activities by DOE
are more reflective of a facility development effort. The priority given to tunnel construction
(combined with the size of the tunnel) at the expense of important surface-based site suitability
studies is cause for concern that site characterization is being driven largely by engineering needs
rather than by the requirements for scientifically investigating the suitability of Yucca Mountain.
In general, the Agency has found serious problems with DOE's site characterization operations
and indications that inadequate controls, substandard practices, quality assurance deficiencies, and
questionable methods may be seriously compromising the scientific studies and the data needed to
formulate conclusions about site suitability.
At the same time, independent studies being carried out through the Agency's technical program
continue to generate data supporting the existence of serious geotechnical flaws at the Yucca
Mountain site. For example, the information generated on calcite-silica deposits on Yucca
Mountain by Agency researchers contradicts DOE findings with respect to a critical site suitability
issue. If the Agency's data is accurate, it means that the mountain has been subjected, in the past,
to the upwelling of geothermal water through faults and cracks. Such a situation would be
sufficiently serious to warrant the immediate disqualification of the site. However, DOE's site
characterization program has, for all practical purposes, placed the issue off limits for further
Agency studies of volcanic hazards, natural resources, faulting and earthquakes, and groundwater
flow are also generating data in conflict with DOE's findings. In the case of groundwater flow
rates, Agency interpretations of available data indicate that the movement of water through the
mountain is rapid enough to be a site disqualifier. The picture of Yucca Mountain that is
emerging is that of a many-faulted, highly fractured, earthquake prone area where past subsurface
processes caused alterations in groundwater levels, produced geothermal upwelling, and likely
deposited minerals with commercially exploitable potential. The uncertainties associated with
predicting future geologic behavior of such a site are extraordinary and, under any reasonably
scientific screening regime, sufficient to eliminate the mountain from consideration as a permanent
Environmental Protection - A Minimalist Approach
Agency oversight of DOE's environmental activities has found significant shortcomings in DOE's
approach to monitoring and assessing environmental impacts of site characterization activities.
Combined with an approach to Environmental Impact Statement implementation that seeks to
compartmentalize program components and view impacts of one program area as separate and
discrete from those of other elements, the DOE environmental program is, at present, inadequate.
Given DOE refusal to prepare a programmatic EIS for the overall program and the decision to
move forward with a piecemeal approach to EIS preparation, DOE's efforts could face
substantive legal challenges and significant delays in the future.
In a program as unique and controversial as the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, it is not
unreasonable to expect the implementing agency to pursue a comprehensive and well considered
program for environmental compliance and monitoring. Instead, what the Agency has found is a
minimalist effort and a very narrow interpretation of DOE's responsibilities under both the
National Environmental Policy Act and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
Worker Health and Safety - An Accident Waiting to Happen
The failure of DOE and its contractors at the Yucca Mountain site to cooperate with State
worker health and safety personnel in assessing and correcting workplace problems and hazards
has the potential to put Yucca Mountain workers at risk. By challenging the State's right to
inspect conditions at the site and to monitor activities for worker safety purposes, DOE has
created a situation where worker health and safety could be subordinate to considerations of cost
and schedule. The Agency considers this to be a disturbing and potentially serious situation that
requires immediate attention and resolution.
Socioeconomic Findings - Risks Outweigh Any Possible Benefits
In eight years of research, data collection, impact assessment, and monitoring, Agency
socioeconomic studies have found that the Yucca Mountain project, while a relatively modest
undertaking in terms of employment, project-induced population growth, revenue, and other usual
project characteristics, has the potential to negatively, and under the right set of circumstances,
significantly impact Nevada's tourism-based economy. Research to date suggests that the greatest
potential socioeconomic threat from the proposed repository stems from what has been termed
the "special effects" of the project. These are impacts related to intense negative perceptions and
stigma associated by the public with a high-level radioactive waste repository, combined with the
vulnerability of the Nevada economy to changes in its public image. Because of the high profile
nature of the whole nuclear waste disposal program, the potential exists for Nevada to become
associated with these negative perceptions to the detriment of its attempts to attract tourists,
conventions, migrants, and diversified new industry to the state. This is especially troublesome in
the event of a nuclear waste accident in or near Las Vegas that might stigmatize the area and
cause visitors to stay away in significant numbers. In the increasingly competitive gaming
marketplace of the future, any deterioration in Nevada's image could be economically
This overall finding of the research to date suggests that, while it is not certain that the State will
be exposed to such stigmatizing processes, Nevada does face considerable exposure with respect
to repository-relate risk-induced effects. Given the uncertainties associated with how the
repository program and its consequences will be perceived and about the way in which people will
react to repository-related accidents and occurrences, the State must be alert to the possibility that
these effects could be very negative and very large.
The actual size of any potential negative effects has not been determined yet, and the subject
remains under study. However, the study concluded that each one-percent decline for Clark
County in spending by visitors, retired people, and investors relative to the baseline levels
assumed to occur in some future year (e.g., 2010) could produce an annual loss of 7,000 jobs and
$200 million in income. It is not clear how large a percentage decline could be expected as a
result of repository-related perceptions, nor how long it would last, but corresponding cases
involving risk-related declines in tourist spending indicate that such a decline could be well in
excess of the conservative one-percent illustrated here. Further research into analogous cases is
planned to test these assumptions.
Nuclear Waste Transportation - Increasing the Risks and Uncertainties
The Agency's transportation studies and analysis over the past 10 years have found evidence to
indicate that the shipment of high-level nuclear waste to a proposed Yucca Mountain repository
has the potential to significantly and negatively affect Nevada communities and act as an
important cause of the stigmatizing effects of the repository project. Yucca Mountain is
especially problematic as a repository site because there is no rail access, and to construct such
access could cost upwards of $1 billion and take years for necessary engineering and
environmental work to be done.
As one of the nine original sites being examined initially for a repository location (prior to the
1987 legislation that singled out the Nevada site), Yucca Mountain rated worst in terms of
transportation criteria. The lack of rail access and the limited number and poor quality of highway
alternatives continues to make the Nevada site a poor choice as the final destination for thousands
of tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste.
The decision by DOE to develop and utilize multiple purpose canisters as the primary container
for transporting spent fuel adds significant complexity and uncertainty to the waste transportation
system. The reliance on burn-up credits in using the proposed 125 ton MPC greatly increases the
possibility of human error and the potential risks of transport. The accelerated schedule for
transporting waste from reactor sites to any interim storage facility, as proposed in recent federal
legislation, could mean that significant numbers of truck shipments will have to move along the
nation's highways much sooner than heretofore anticipated, with associated impacts on emergency
preparedness and planning responsibilities for states and communities along shipping corridors.
DOE's continued failure to address important transportation issues and to undertake critically
needed analysis, such as the evaluation of preferred shipping routes, further exacerbates the
dilemma faced by states, like Nevada, that must assess and address the likely impacts associated
with large numbers of waste shipments.
In carrying out its statutory responsibilities, the Agency for Nuclear Projects has closely monitored the Department of Energy's high-level radioactive waste management program, especially DOE's Yucca Mountain activities in Nevada, and has carried out independent technical studies and programs for socioeconomic and transportation impact assessment. The findings contained in this report suggest that the DOE program is seriously deficient in almost every area of endeavor. The Agency's findings suggest further that the calls for a comprehensive, independent review of federal nuclear waste policy and its implementation under the DOE program by the U.S. Government Accounting Office, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board and others have considerable merit and should be heeded before further attempts are made to redirect or restructure the current program.
1. The Agency is in the process of preparing a report on oversight activities and findings for the period January, 1995 - December, 1996. That report is expected to be available by January, 1997.
2. The PPA and related developments in the federal nuclear waste program are discussed in detail in Chapter One of this report.
3. "Yucca Mountain: A Crisis for Policy," by James Flynn and Paul Slovic, Decision Science Research Institute (December, 1994).
4. A detailed discussion of the pneumatic pathways issue is contained in Chapter Two of the full report.