Yucca Mountain Update -- A Publication of the State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects

Volume 1 Issue 16 ~ October 21, 2003






- Jaczko, aide to Nevada Sen. Reid, named to
Nuclear Regulatory Commission

- What’s Wrong With Putting Nuclear Waste in Yucca Mountain? The Facts (first in a series)

- Outrage of the Week


Jaczko, aide to Nevada Sen. Reid, named to
Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Overcoming opposition from the Bush administration, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently succeeded in having his aide, physicist Gregory Jaczko, nominated to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).


In exchange for clearing the way for a number of administration nominees to take office, Jaczko, 32, will assume a five-year term on the NRC that likely will likely carry through the agency's deliberations over a proposed high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.


The NRC is expected to weigh in on a Department of Energy (DOE) application for licensure of the proposed facility in December 2004.


"Greg's appointment will finally give Nevada a voice within the NRC," said Bob Loux, executive director of the State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.  "Our concerns about this misguided project will finally have a real outlet in Washington."


Nevada has filed several lawsuits against the DOE and NRC aimed at halting the project.  It also has a Constitutional case pending against the Bush administration and Congress.  Opening arguments in these cases are expected to go before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., in January 2004.


Jaczko, an Albany, N.Y., native, is a physicist who has served as Reid's top science aide since 2001, advising the senator on Yucca Mountain, nuclear power plant security, and other energy- and environmentally-related issues.  He holds a bachelor's degree in physics and philosophy from Cornell University and a doctorate in theoretical particle physics from the University of Wisconsin. 


In exchange for Jaczko's nomination, Reid lifted holds on more than three dozen presidential nominees for various posts around the country.  He also agreed not to block Bush's appointment of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.


The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying arm and a leading supporter of the Yucca Mountain project, had opposed Jaczko's nomination.


What’s wrong with putting nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain? The Facts (first in a series)

When Congress passed nuclear waste laws in 1982, “geologic isolation”  was required for any waste repository, to protect future generations. An isolation time of 250,000 years was envisioned, when radioactivity would have decayed to safe levels.


The view from the crest of Yucca Mountain, looking southwest.This approach had been recommended by scientists since 1957, and was selected by Congress after a comprehensive 1980 study by the DOE.

Detailed safety rules for repositories were developed in the early 1980s by DOE, the EPA and the NRC, all based on geologic isolation.

Hoping Yucca Mountain would satisfy this requirement, Congress selected it in 1987 as the only site for detailed study.

But results from DOE studies were startling:  They showed Yucca could not geologically isolate wastes, because water flows much faster from the surface through the mountain to the water table than had been expected.

 o   Yucca was formed from volcanic ash and is the only repository under consideration in the world that is above the water table, not below it.

o   Yucca’s volcanic material is brittle and contains innumerable fractures and voids, some resembling a Swiss-cheese formation.

o   DOE says the number of “water-conducting fractures” at Yucca is “on the order of one billion.”

o   Fast water paths through the mountain make “geologic containment” a matter of 50 to 200 years, not the 250,000 years intended by scientists and Congress.

o   The so-called “dry” rock is over 80 percent saturated with water,  posing serious waste package corrosion risks.

o   Yucca’s rock form and chemistry are uniquely conducive to the production of strong acids that can corrode through metal waste packages.

o   Scientists agree that the primary risk at Yucca is water transporting radioactive wastes from corroding waste containers to the accessible environment.

(Editor's note: Future editions of Yucca Mountain Update will feature more "What's wrong with Yucca Mountain" articles covering a wide range of issues.)

Outrage of
the Week

It must be open season on Nevada’s rural counties.  At least that’s the conclusion to be drawn from the latest is a series of attempts by Yucca Mountain proponents to manipulate three rural southern Nevada counties into supporting activities aimed at moving the stalled Yucca Mountain project forward. 

Last spring, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the public relations arm of the commercial nuclear power industry and a rabid supporter of Yucca Mountain, hoodwinked representatives from three economically disadvantaged Nevada Counties – Nye, Lincoln and Esmeralda – by extracting statements from county officials visiting Washington, D.C., encouraging the State of Nevada to abandon its legal challenges to the project and  cut some sort of deal with the federal government that would benefit their counties.   

Taking a page from NEI’s book (and no doubt with help and encouragement from NEI consultants who just happen to work for two of the counties), DOE’s director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Margaret Chu, convened a secret meeting last month with officials from Nye, Esmeralda and Lincoln counties and the City of Caliente to press the four jurisdictions to form an alliance to make it easier for DOE to deal with spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste transportation issues in Nevada by excluding the State and other affected local governments, in particular Clark County.

Immediately following the Chu meeting, consultants working for Esmeralda and Lincoln counties and the City of Caliente prepared a draft of a four-party agreement creating a tri-county transportation authority and presented the draft to the Nye County Commission for its approval.  Nye  County has so far declined to endorse the idea. 

What’s really behind all this maneuvering is a thinly disguised attempt by DOE (like NEI) to divide and conquer.  Not only is DOE attempting to get around having to deal with the State of Nevada and Clark County, the jurisdiction whose population would be  most impacted by Yucca Mountain transportation, but DOE is also seeking to pit the three selected Nevada counties against the other affected local governments.

More troubling, but hardly surprising, is DOE’s politicization of the Yucca Mountain transportation decision-making process.  By attempting to forge an alliance among three counties using the ‘carrot’ of federal funds for going along, DOE is looking to hide behind a surrogate when it comes to making key transportation decisions, such as the location of a rail spur to Yucca Mountain and even the selection of a shipping mode (i.e., rail or truck).  Director Chu, for example, has openly stated that she does not want DOE to have to make these decisions, but, instead, wants some other entity to take the heat.  Instead of approaching these critically important decisions using supportable facts and defensible science, DOE is reverting to form by looking for expedient political fixes to get its way.   

Attempting to lay off the burden – and blame – on three small, economically troubled Nevada counties for difficult and potentially far-reaching decisions about rail spur locations, routes, methods of transport, and related matters by exploiting these counties’ desperate economic circumstances might make sense in the distorted worldview of DOE and NEI.  But, from any other perspective, such shenanigans are morally and scientifically reprehensible. 

Political science has always driven DOE’s technical work in “characterizing” Yucca Mountain, allowing DOE to twist the facts and gerrymander the science to make a patently unsafe site appear suitable.  DOE is now doing the same thing in the transportation arena.  

To its credit, the Nye County Commission has seen through DOE’s manipulations and isn’t buying the scheme.  Likewise, the Nevada Attorney General, who would have to sign off on any such multi-county agreement, isn’t likely to be fooled either.

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