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

Volume 1 Issue 10 ~ May 22, 2003




- DOE failing to make case for Yucca Mountain, says key NRC official

- Yucca Mountain documentation faces scrutiny

- Outrage of the Week


DOE failing to make case for Yucca Mountain, says key NRC official
Citing persistent management and quality control problems after years of failed fixes, a key official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) believes that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is failing to build a strong case to support burying the nation's high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

John Greeves, director of the NRC's Waste Management Division, said a series of reforms appear to be having no effect and are leaving the DOE "stumbling" to meet a December 2004 deadline for submitting a nuclear waste repository application to the NRC.

Speaking to DOE officials, Greeves said, "It's all about outcomes, and we're going to have to verify the outcomes, and so far it's not there."   He then called on DOE officials to write the NRC a letter within 30 days, "telling us what you're going to do differently."

"The issues that John Greeves brought to light are the types of issues that, cumulatively,  should raise red flags all over the NRC," said Bob Loux, executive director of the State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.  "These quality-assurance issues are at the heart of the entire Yucca Mountain project, and should have a major bearing in the licensing process."


In order to qualify for a license, DOE must painstakingly verify all of its activities. However, Greeves said, "Over the years the (DOE)  has attempted initiatives to correct these problems but there hasn't been follow through.  Anyone who has watched this project has a large collection of these initiatives on their shelf."

Greeves noted that repairs on computer modeling and software development that were identified two years ago have yet to completed.

"Quality is just not being built into the product," he said. "The project's track record shows that schedules overcome quality."

Yucca Mountain documentation faces scrutiny

Documentation needed to license the Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas is coming under scrutiny, prompting a private project contractor to audit several years' worth of paperwork associated with the repository.


The project's latest paperwork snafu began in January, after managers with Bechtel SAIC found recurring data management problems over the last four to six years.

Knowing the problem could undermine its ability to defend data supposedly supporting the safety of Yucca Mountain, DOE began investigating the matter in April.


"This is just the latest in a string of problems that call into question the efficacy and ultimate safety of DOE's plan to make Yucca Mountain the nation's nuclear waste dump," said Bob Loux, executive director of the State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.


"At the very least, it is sloppy work," Loux continued.  "And at worst, it puts DOE in a position where it cannot adequately defend the data which it believes supports its plans.  To that extent, any and all data previously compiled is suspect."


In March, DOE issued a "stop work" order on a segment of the Yucca Mountain program after auditors discovered flaws in procedure-writing.  A subsequent audit conducted by Bechtel found that the contractor failed to update procedures directing scientists and technicians on what is necessary to document their tasks.

The auditors also found improper documentation on sign-offs of procedure changes; in one case, a Bechtel manager pre-signed approval sheets for 97 procedures before their preparation was complete.


A Bechtel spokesperson said workers sought shortcuts to simplify what appeared to be routine work after feeling pressured to complete the task.


"This type of clerical sleight-of-hand is unacceptable under any circumstances, but especially when we're talking about plans to dump 77,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste in our back yards," Loux said.



Outrage of
the Week

 Kraft Comments to NRC:  Leave DOE alone

It’s bad enough that DOE continues to cover up major shortcomings in its quality assurance program for Yucca Mountain and punish project personnel who have the audacity to bring such problems to light.  But the commercial nuclear power industry wants to go even further in sweeping deficiencies under the rug.


Steve Kraft, an executive with the Nuclear Energy Institute, the public relations and lobbying arm of the nuclear industry, told a meeting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on April 17th that NRC should stop pressing DOE for answers to some 293 unresolved technical issues related to the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and permit DOE to decide for itself what issues are important enough to warrant attention. 


Kraft’s comments are just the latest in the nuclear industry’s continuing assault on health and safety regulations and requirements that are perceived as impediments to fast-tracking Yucca Mountain.  The industry long advocated DOE’s abandonment of the original site evaluation guidelines, recognizing that under those guidelines, Yucca Mountain would have had to be disqualified as a repository site. 


The industry has for years fought proposals to require spent fuel shipping casks to be physically tested full scale instead of the computer tests that are presently required.  (NASA recently found out the hard way about the shortcomings of computer simulations in predicting performance of complex systems.) 


The industry fought the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed radiation exposure limits for Yucca Mountain, favoring a much less stringent standard. 


And even after the events of September 11th, the industry continues to work behind the scenes to discourage NRC from addressing the State of Nevada’s petition asking that regulations governing the safeguarding of spent fuel shipments against terrorism and sabotage be strengthened.


There is a certain irony in Kraft’s comments that bears illumination.  The NRC has bent over backwards (some would say rolled over) to smooth the way for DOE’s Yucca Mountain license application.  Collusion between DOE and NRC has been occurring for years and is even the subject of litigation on the part of the State of Nevada.  For Kraft to contend that NRC’s overt assistance to DOE is hampering the progress of the license application is laughable. 


What Kraft and the industry really object to is the need for DOE to spend any of its resources pursuing health and safety issues.  What they want is for DOE to get to work designing and building the repository in the shortest amount of time and at the least cost.  Damn the torpedoes … . 


Who cares if questions remain about the ability of Yucca Mountain to keep deadly nuclear waste out of the environment and away from people?  If the facility leaks in a few hundred years or a few thousand years, so what?  It’s the bottom line that counts, and the industry’s bottom line is to build a repository now to help foster the illusory resurgence of nuclear power. 


It’s precisely this type of short-sighted thinking that has led to the current public  skepticism and distrust about things nuclear.  If Kraft was smart, he would be demanding stricter NRC oversight and even stricter health and safety requirements for Yucca Mountain.  That would be in the long-term interests of the industry.


But, then, that would be very much out of character for the nuclear power folks.

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