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

Volume 2 Issue 6 ~ June 18, 2004






- State Questions Potential Environmental Affects of Department of Energy’s Proposed Caliente Rail Route to Yucca Mountain

- Outrage of the Week


State Questions Potential Environmental Affects of Department of Energy’s Proposed Caliente Rail Route to Yucca Mountain


Nevada rebuts DOE claims that little to no nuclear waste will pass through Las Vegas Valley

Despite claims by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to the contrary, the State of Nevada believes there is no way high-level nuclear waste can be transported by rail to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository without a large percentage of it passing through the heavily-populated Las Vegas Valley.


The state’s comments are contained in a 120-page document submitted recently to the DOE in response to a draft environmental report covering the DOE’s plans to build a railroad on a circuitous route from Caliente in rural Lincoln County to the proposed repository 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.


“The DOE would have us believe that the Caliente rail route would allow nuclear waste to bypass the Las Vegas Valley, but it simply does not do that,” said Bob Loux, executive director of the state’s Agency for Nuclear Projects.  “Any waste coming to Yucca Mountain from Southern California and Arizona would have to go through Las Vegas, and in winter months, rail shipments coming from Texas through New Mexico and Arizona and into California would pass through Barstow (Calif.), and the only route it would have to Yucca Mountain from there would be through Las Vegas.”


Loux added that the DOE ultimately would have no say over which route private rail carriers, such as the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and Union Pacific, would transport the waste to Yucca Mountain.  “The Caliente route, therefore, does not do as it is advertised,” he said.


The DOE claims that building the rail line from Caliente westward across the Great Basin Desert, then south and east past Tonopah and Goldfield along the western edge of the Nellis Air Force Range to Yucca Mountain, would alleviate the need for any waste to pass through Las Vegas.


However, in its final environmental report for the repository, the DOE estimated that about 7 percent (or 660 out of 9,646 rail cask-shipments) of all rail shipments to Yucca Mountain via a Caliente rail line would travel through downtown Las Vegas.  DOE in that report also assumed that the remainder, or 93 percent of the total rail shipments, would use the Union Pacific Railroad mainlines from Chicago or Kansas City, via Gibbon, Neb., and Cheyenne, Wyo., entering Nevada from Utah.


In its comments of the Caliente rail line environmental report, dated May 25 and addressed to Robin Sweeney, EIS document manager for the DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, the state argued, “Rail shipments through Las Vegas could potentially account for about 89 percent of the total if the Caliente rail line is constructed.  Analyses done for the State of Nevada, using shipment numbers from the Repository Final EIS (environmental impact statement), conclude that up to 8,564 of the total 9,646 rail-cask shipments could traverse downtown Las Vegas.”


The state went on to say that “Even if DOE shipped an average of three casks per train, there could be 2,854 shipments over 24 years, or an average of two train shipments per week, through Las Vegas.”


Current DOE policy provides for rail carriers to determine which routes will be used for shipments to Yucca Mountain.  With four major cross-country rail routes available for east-west shipments, “a number of factors could result in the vast majority of shipments from the East traveling to Nevada on the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe or Union Pacific routes across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California,” the state said.  “All rail shipments to Yucca Mountain, except those from the Pacific Northwest and Idaho, could therefore travel to Caliente through downtown Las Vegas under credible alternative routing scenarios.”


In addition to concerns over rail shipments passing through Las Vegas, Loux said the state took issue with several other matters contained in the DOE’s draft environmental report.  These includes accessibility to water needed to build the rail line, adverse affects on wildlife and endangered species, including migratory patterns for wild horses and burros, affects on ranching and grazing livestock, and impacts on Native American lands and sites.


The DOE is drafting an environmental report for the rail line that will probably be released to the public in about 18 months, Loux said.  Following that, there will be another round of hearings and public comment periods, then the completion of a final report.  “Only then would they be able to begin actual work on the rail line,” he said.


Despite the state’s concerns, Loux said he does not believe DOE will have the wherewithal to build the rail line, citing high costs in terms of both time and money and difficulties from environmental and engineering standpoints.  He added that 40 percent of the nation’s nuclear reactor sites, where nuclear waste currently is stored, no longer have rail lines.


Outrage of
the Week

Denial of Funds for State Licensing Participation

The Department of Energy recently denied Nevada’s request for additional funds needed to effectuate the State’s participation in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing proceeding for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository. 


DOE’s reason for the denial:  The Department doesn’t have the authority to allocate more money to the State absent action by Congress.


Never mind that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended, requires the Secretary of Energy to make funds available to the State of Nevada for a range of activities, including State participation in NRC licensing.  True to form, DOE isn’t about to allow a little thing like a statutory requirement stand in the way of hamstringing its principal adversary in the licensing process.


DOE clearly understands that Nevada will be a formidable foe when DOE submits its application for a Yucca Mountain license to NRC late this year.  The State has already amassed considerable data that challenge crucial DOE assumptions about site suitability and the viability of DOE’s entire engineered repository scheme, including compelling evidence about serious corrosion problems with the absurd 10,000 year waste disposal containers that are the core of DOE’s Rube Goldberg repository design.


Limiting the State’s ability to effectively intervene in the licensing proceeding is not just a high DOE priority.  It is absolutely essential for obtaining the required NRC license to

construct and operate a repository.   As DOE has demonstrated over and over again in the Yucca Mountain program and elsewhere, when you know you can’t prevail on sound scientific and technical grounds, an effective strategy is to use underhanded politics and fiscal shenanigans to get your way.


What about DOE’s argument that it has no authority to provide more money to Nevada than was authorized by Congress in the 2004 Energy and Water Development Authorization Act?  Interestingly, the fact that Congress also line-itemed a specific amount for affected local governments’ oversight activities hasn’t stopped DOE from lavishing extra funds on select counties over and above the Congressional appropriation.  Nye County, for example, is receiving extra funds (in the millions) for transportation and hydrology/geology work under separate contracts/agreements with DOE.  Likewise, DOE is in the process of handing out additional monies to Nye, Lincoln and Esmeralda counties for activities related to the proposed Yucca Mountain rail spur. 


It seems that DOE has no trouble awarding money without additional congressional action when it suits its purpose – that being to reward its friends and buy support for the Yucca program.  But when it comes to finding the funds needed to implement the statutory provision requiring State of Nevada participation in the licensing process, DOE claims its hands are tied. 

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