NEVADA AGENCY FOR NUCLEAR PROJECTS

REPORT ON OVERSIGHT OF DOE'S HIGH-LEVEL

RADIOACTIVE WASTE PROGRAM:

KEY FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS 1993 - 1995


The Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects has spent more that ten years overseeing the federal government's high-level radioactive waste management program and studying potential effects of that program on the State of Nevada, its communities, its economy, its environment, and its people. Key findings of the Agency's oversight program for the period 1993 - 1995 and their implications are briefly discussed below. A more detailed treatment of these findings is contained in the full report titled, "Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects: Report on Agency Activities and Oversight of the U.S. Department of Energy's High-Level Radioactive Waste Management Program" (February, 1995)(1).

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 to 1987.

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 analysis.

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 repository.

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 catastrophic.

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.

Concluding Comment

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.


Footnotes

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.


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