When the next Congress returns, we can expect the Department of Energy to make a last-gasp effort to save its Yucca Mountain radioactive waste project by getting Congress to lower the safety bar for licensing. It is vital for public radiation protection, not only in Nevada but also throughout the country, that Congress reject attempts to relax the radiation safety standards to accommodate DOE. If the Yucca Mountain site can’t meet the standard, that’s proof the site is wrong, not that the safety standard is too strict.
The Yucca Mountain standard applies to Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing to permit building and operating a waste repository at the site. By law DOE has to demonstrate to NRCby running a computer simulation modelthat the radiation dose to people in the area will be below a limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The question at issue is: how far into the future does the DOE model have to go to show compliance? On this and other points, Congress had told EPA to follow the recommendation of the National Academy of Science. In 1995, the scientists told EPA to make sure above all that DOE compliance extended beyond the time of peak radiation impact to the surrounding population which comes after the waste containers corrode and their radioactive contents leaks out.
But such a sensible standard posed problems for DOE because the site geology around Yucca Mountain was poor at containing radioactive leakage. The Department’s calculations showed that after the containers failed, the public radiation dose in the area exceeded the EPA limit. To protect its Yucca Mountain project, DOE didn’t want the safety regulators to look beyond the time waste containers fail. DOE wanted a fixed time limit for compliance, one over which it could argue that its “miracle metal” containers would stay whole and so DOE would never have to confront the inadequacy of the site’s geology. EPA accommodated DOE by choosing a fixed 10,000-year limit, even though the National Academy of Science had previously and specifically rejected this option.
A duration of 10,000 years sounds like a long time, and it is. But it isn’t the specific duration that is most important here, but rather whether or not it has to include the time of peak radiation impact on people. That peak occurs at a time that depends on the assumptions of the computer simulation model, in particular assumptions on waste container corrosion. DOE’s assumption about the longevity of their waste containers, which can only be described as wildly optimistic, led to peak public impact at times much later than 10,000 years. But with more realistic assumptions, the peak public dose would come much earlier, probably well before 10,000 years. The main thing that is wrong with the fixed 10,000-year standard is that it opens the door to DOE manipulation of its model to push the non-compliance problems beyond the 10,000 years. That way, it can rely principally on its container design and more or less ignore the site’s geologic deficiencies. Regrettably, the “independent” safety regulators have shown a willingness to go along with this approach. That was not what Congress intended in legislating a process for developing a geologic repository.
The disparity between Congressional direction and the National Academy’s scientific advice, on the one hand, and EPA’s standard, on the other, could not have been starker. In July 2004, in a suit brought by Nevada, the federal Court of Appeals (D.C. Circuit) threw out the EPA 10,000-year compliance limit because it was completely at odds with the recommendation of the National Academy of Science, on which Congress told EPA to rely.
EPA should now write a new rule. It would be easy to do so it would only involve changing a few words but that’s too straightforward. DOE and its allies, emboldened by the recent election results, now want Congress to overturn the court ruling to get back their sweetheart safety standard. They attempted to attach such a rejection of the July 2004 court ruling to legislation during the recent November post-election session, but they failed. They will be back; they said so. Strangely, the Congressional proponents claimed to have White House support for overturning the court’s decision, but a White House spokesman said this wasn’t so. President Bush, he said, was sticking with his pre-election pledge to Nevada to accept the court’s decision. It appears that DOE, although it works for the president, has policies of its own, at least up to now.
It is difficult to believe that in these circumstances Congress would reward DOE’s poor performance and inability to meet the required standard for protecting people around Yucca Mountain by lowering that standard. At the same time, we should not underestimate the forces lined up to defend the project. There is simply too much pork involved in this multi-year, multibillion-dollar project. Everyone who cares about the integrity of federal decision-making in this area should urge Congress to keep its public protection priorities straight.