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

Volume 2 Issue 4 ~ April 2, 2004






- Nevada sues DOE to recoup $4 million in grants

- What’s wrong with putting nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain? Migration of waste down to the water table/The bottom line (last in a series)

- Outrage of the Week


Nevada sues DOE to recoup $4 million in grants

As it awaits the outcome of several lawsuits aimed at derailing the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, the state of Nevada recently lodged another complaint arguing that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is denying the state grants to which it is entitled under federal law.


Filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the state argues that DOE and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham are violating provisions of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) by denying Nevada $4 million for fiscal year 2004 for the costs of the state’s participation in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) licensing process, evaluating DOE's technical program and conclusions, and performing oversight and independent studies as provided for in the NWPA.


The same court is deliberating the state’s suits against DOE, NRC, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a constitutional challenge against the project.  A decision in those cases could come as early as this month.


“The state – including Gov. Kenny Guinn, Attorney General Brian Sandoval, and Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects Executive Director Bob Loux – has tried repeatedly to secure these funds via letters to Secretary Abraham and other DOE officials, but has not received an answer,” said Joe Egan, an attorney representing Nevada in its case against Yucca Mountain.


“Since neither the Secretary nor any other DOE official has ever responded to Nevada’s communications concerning the funding issue raised by the Petition for Review, we do not know what, if any, objection DOE has to the position taken by Nevada with regard to these funds,” Egan said.


The grants are, by law, a continuing appropriation.  Abraham has the authority and obligation to issue the funds to Nevada, Egan said.  However, at the same time that he “zeroed out” Nevada, Abraham and DOE approved a $45 million, five-year contract with an outside law firm to assist the federal government in pursuing licensure of Yucca Mountain, Egan added.


Until Nevada receives the $4 million grant, the state is asking the court to order the DOE to cease working on its licensing application to the NRC, and to direct Abraham to establish a procedure allowing Nevada to receive all NWPA funds to which it is entitled "that cannot be encumbered by ad hoc judgments of DOE growing out of its adversarial relationship with Nevada in the NRC proceedings," according to the lawsuit.


"As it stands now, the Secretary will be an adversary against Nevada in front of the NRC while he also controls our funding," said Loux.  "We want this to be on the up and up."


Congress has appropriated $1 million for the state, but Nevada needs the additional $4 million to complete an array of work associated with the proposed repository.  Nevada’s fiscal year 2004 budget includes $2 million for scientific evaluation of DOE’s proposed engineered barrier system at Yucca Mountain, $700,000 for scientific evaluations of the probability and effects of volcanic eruptions in Yucca Mountain, $300,000 for general scientific review of other key technical issues including geology, $1 million for independent scientific evaluation of DOE’s total systems performance assessment (TSPA) of how the repository will perform, and $1 million for licensing preparation.


“If we are forced to assume that we will be receiving no more $1 million this year, our ongoing scientific research would need to end or be cut to the bone,” said Loux.

What’s wrong with putting nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain? Migration of waste down to the water table/The bottom line (last in a series)

DOE has assumed that a broad variety of radioisotopes released from corroding waste packages will not descend through the mountain to the water table, claiming they will be retarded by attaching to minerals in the rock, or by diffusing into the rock.

But Nevada’s studies show this phenomenon is not significant for many of the most prevalent radioactive constituents.  Once radioactive materials get to the water table, DOE concedes they will rapidly migrate to Amargosa Valley (in as little as 100 years).  Amargosa Valley today hosts Nevada’s largest dairy and organic milk producer, using locally grown feed.  It’s about 80 miles north of Las Vegas, the nation’s fastest growing city. 

The Bottom Line

DOE’s performance models assume Nevadans will one day be drinking and using water contaminated with nuclear waste; the only questions being “how soon?” and “how much?”  The Yucca Mountain high-level waste repository fails the tests of science and can never be made safe.

Outrage of
the Week

Deja Vu
All Over Again?

It’s the 1950s, and the Atomic Energy Commission is engaged in a program of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site that involves the dispersal of large amounts of toxic contaminants (i.e., radioactive fallout) into the environment, exposing thousands on and off the site to varying levels of contamination. 


Despite having good information that such exposures would have harmful – even deadly – consequences, the AEC intentionally downplays the risks, telling people downwind that the fallout is more a nuisance than a danger:  Just brush off the dust with a broom and take a shower; there’s nothing to be alarmed about. 


The justification:  Something so mundane as public health and safety cannot be permitted to interfere with or delay the national security imperative of atomic weapons testing.


Fast forward the 1990s at the western corner of the NTS, where the Department of Energy, successor agency to the AEC, has embarked on construction of an underground tunnel that is to be used to characterize the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository site.


Despite having been told repeatedly by its own consultants and experts that the dust being spewed into the tunnel by the drilling operation was extremely hazardous and contained dangerous amounts of silica, erionite and mordenite, DOE proceeded with tunnel construction without telling workers and others of the potential life-threatening conditions and without requiring respirators and other simple protective measures that would easily have mitigated the risk. 


As a result, thousands of workers and support personnel were unknowingly exposed and their lives put at risk.  


The justification this time?  Something so important as a national nuclear waste repository requires that the project meet cost and schedule milestones, which means keeping workers in the dark about health and safety conditions. 


In 40 years, with all of the revelations about DOE’s abhorrent track record of contamination and health and safety violations at almost every weapons complex facility in the country and with all of the attention paid to – and ostensible changes made in – the “culture” at AEC/DOE that permitted such travesties to occur, one would think the DOE people in charge of the Yucca Mountain project would have learned something. 


Sadly, that is not the case, and once again, a major DOE program in Nevada has been shown to have inflicted untold suffering and potential death on innocent and unsuspecting people. 


Even more disturbing is the fact that this is all occurring in what should be the less risky and more predictable phase of the Yucca Mountain project, without any radioactive material at the site or in transit.  If DOE cannot assure public health and safety in so simple, straightforward and thoroughly understood a matter as the prevention of silicosis among construction workers, how can the nation possibly expect this same agency to manage the largest and most complex nuclear waste disposal program in history in a manner that does not result in yet another human health and environmental fiasco? 


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