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

Volume 1 Issue 14 ~ September 8, 2003





-  British Hydrologists Join Nevada's Scientific Team in Analyzing Yucca Mountain Data 

- Court delays opening arguments in Nevada's lawsuit against Yucca Mountain

- Outrage of the Week

British Hydrologists Join Nevada's Scientific Team in Analyzing Yucca Mountain Data

New experts’ findings could help state derail project

Joining Nevada’s scientific team in its battle against the Yucca Mountain project, a trio of British hydrologists met for the first time recently with the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects.


Joe Egan (left foreground), an attorney representing Nevada in its lawsuits against the Yucca Mountain project, and Dr. Michael C. Thorne (right), a British hydrologist who recently joined the state's scientific team, view the countryside from the crest of Yucca Mountain during a tour of the proposed high-level nuclear waste respository Sept. 3.  Standing behind Egan is DOE tour guide Patrick Rowe.The introduction of Dr. Michael C. Thorne, director of Mike Thorne & Associates, Ltd. In London at the commission's Sept. 5 meeting capped a week of discussions into the federal government’s hydrological data for the proposed nuclear waste repository, planned 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.  The meetings took place in Las Vegas Sept. 2-4, and included a tour of the Yucca Mountain site.


Along with Thorne, the new expert forces joining Nevada’s team are Dr. Adrian P. Butler, senior lecturer in subsurface hydrology in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Imperial College, and Dr. Howard S. Wheater, professor of hydrology and head of the Environmental and Water Resource Engineering Section at Imperial College, University of London.  Butler and Wheater were unable to attend the commission meeting.


“We wanted to bring together some of the experts for this meeting so they could begin working in unison in examining the Department of Energy’s (DOE) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) computer models for Yucca Mountain, particularly the hydrology models,” said Bob Loux, executive director of the Sate of Nevada Agency for Nuclear projects.


Addressing the commission, Thorne briefly outlined climatology affecting Yucca Mountain – including present-day and projected rainfalls – as well as the influences of faults lines and surface fractures on precipitation flow.  He then related these factors to changes in heat, dissolved minerals and gas flows at the site.


“No other system in the world attempts to create a repository in such a thermodynamically unstable environment,” Thorne said, adding that there are lingering questions about the adequacy of the scientific methods used by the DOE in developing hydrological computer models for Yucca Mountain


“There is a great deal of science that needs to be looked at,” he said.  “DOE has put itself in a difficult position; they have selected a system that causes them to work at or beyond the limits of existing science to justify the project.”

For the past two decades, the state’s scientific consultants have been poring over DOE and NRC hydrological data contained in the Total System Performance Assessment (TSPA), while developing their own findings based on alternative theories on the affects of underground water systems at Yucca Mountain.  These include possible effects of corrosion in nuclear waste storage canisters and the possibility of volcanic eruptions at the site.


Loux said the scientists’ review could be used to debunk DOE and NRC claims about the hydrological aspects of the Yucca Mountain system, which could be used to derail licensing of the facility in late 2004. The licensing proceedings will likely occur after Nevada’s lawsuits against the federal government, which also could halt the project, are heard in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.; state officials believe success in any one of five suits pending against DOE, the NRC, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be sufficient to defeat the repository plan.


The three new hydrologists joining Nevada’s scientific team bring with them impressive resumes and international backgrounds in engineering and hydrology.


Dr. Adrian ButlerButler, a fellow with the Royal Meteorological Society and a member of the British Hydrological Society, currently is researching groundwater flow and transport processes including migration and uptake of radionuclides in the near surface.


Thorne, who formed his namesake company in 2001, has developed several studies on radioactive waste transfers in sludge and water in the United Kingdom and Australia.  Among his areas of specialization are radiological protection, assessment of the radiological safety of radioactive waste disposal, and the distribution and transport of radionuclides in the environment.


Wheater, Dr. Howard Wheatera member of the American Geophysical Union and a life member of the International Water Academy, lists as his areas of expertise unsaturated zone and groundwater hydrology, arid zone hydrology and water resource development, rainfall modeling, rainfall/run-off modeling, flood hydrology and urban hydrology, surface water quality, and large-scale hydrological modeling.


In addition to providing their expertise alongside the state’s other scientific consultants, Loux said the three hydrologists also could serve as expert witnesses in court proceedings.

Court delays opening arguments in Nevada's lawsuit against Yucca Mountain                                             

Citing complexity of cases, State sees postponement as advantage

The complexity of four consolidated lawsuits filed by the State of Nevada to block licensing and certification of the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository apparently has led the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to delay opening arguments in the cases.


Joseph Egan, an attorney representing Nevada in the suits, said the court initially scheduled opening arguments for Oct. 3.  However, the court “apparently decided the cases were too complex,” Egan said, and opted for more time to review the State’s claims against the repository. 


The court has not re-scheduled opening arguments, Egan said, although moving the cases to its “complex docket” could provide Nevada with an advantage in its efforts to halt the repository.


“We think it’s great because it gives us more time to argue our case when we do go before the court,” Egan said.   He explained that each side – Nevada and the federal government – would have several hours each to present their cases on the complex docket, as opposed to 15 minutes per side, per case on a regular docket.


Members of Nevada's scientific team tour the Exploratory Studies Facility (ESF) tunnel at Yucca Mountain, Sept. 3.Bob Loux, executive director of the State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said the delay should serve as a signal that the complexity of Nevada’s cases reflects the intricate and easily misunderstood nature of the Yucca Mountain project itself.


 “We are basing our cases on the fact that the federal government used faulty and misleading scientific data to prop up its arguments for the repository, while ignoring credible geological studies disproving the safety and stability of Yucca Mountain,” Loux said.


Loux added that the government’s defense relies principally on hopes for a quick dismissal based on procedural grounds, such as ripeness and standing, rather than substantive grounds in defense of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) actions related to the Yucca Mountain project. 


“The fact that the court now views these cases as complex suggests that they are not buying the government’s arguments,” he said.  “The more the court looks at the cases, the better chance we have in prevailing since the government cannot rationally explain DOE’s actions.”


Nevada has consolidated four lawsuits against the federal government’s handling of the Yucca Mountain repository proposal, Egan said. 


The “case in chief” against the DOE, the Bush administration and U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham charges that the DOE used faulty guidelines in recommending Yucca Mountain as the storage facility for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.  Egan said Congress in July 2002 accepted those guidelines in passing a joint resolution – which President Bush subsequently signed – approving the repository proposal.


Egan added that the suit charges Abraham with failing to disqualify Yucca Mountain as a potential repository despite geological shortcomings of the site, and includes several major claims against environmental impact studies prepared for the site.


The suit also claims that DOE justified its actions after Congress pass the joint resolution.  “Their theory is that the joint resolution mooted them out,” Egan said.  “Basically, they are saying that Congress approved it no matter what and that they are going to proceed.”


A second case argues that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) arbitrarily changed its own rules on radiation standards for the site and “gerrymandered” the site’s boundaries by extending them in the direction of underground water flows, Egan said.  This allowed the EPA to use misleading figures showing dilution rates of radiation escaping from Yucca Mountain, Egan said.


Nevada also has filed suit against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on five different counts related to the geologic stability and isolation of Yucca Mountain, three of which the NRC “has already folded on,” Egan said. In addition, the state has filed a constitutional lawsuit claiming Congress approved the joint resolution “in the face of deficient geology (that) was oppressive to Nevada, by politically isolating the state,” Egan said.


“The suit against DOE is the most serious, and all the others are derivatives from it,” Egan said.  “The DOE changed the rules when Yucca Mountain could not qualify as a repository.  The other suits just followed on.”

Outrage of
the Week

Next time the U.S. Department of Energy rolls out its Yucca Mountain public relations people who pontificate about how much DOE values public involvement, openness, and cooperation with states and local governments, think about what DOE does, not what it says. 


That’s the lesson to be learned from DOE’s handling of a recent shipment of spent nuclear fuel from the mothballed spent fuel recycling facility in West Valley, N.Y., to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.


DOE had originally intended to make the shipment of this material in mid-September, 2001.  In preparation, the spent fuel had been placed in large rail shipping containers, which were then loaded onto rail cars at the West Valley facility. 


Under informal agreements with states along the shipping routes and regional groups such as the Western Governors’ Association, DOE had pledged to provide advance notice of the shipment to affected states so that response and security personnel could be alerted and ready.  DOE also committed to allow independent inspections of the shipment at states’ discretion and to proceed according to NRC and USDOT regulations that define standard operating procedure for such shipments. 


When the September 11th terrorist attacks occurred, DOE postponed the West Valley shipment, pledging to provide states along the way with time and notice for planning when the shipment was rescheduled.  That didn’t happen.


Citing security concerns, DOE, one dark night in July 2003, secretly coupled the spent fuel cars to a train and clandestinely moved the waste across the country to Idaho.


One local response official, who found out after the fact that the waste shipments had passed through his jurisdiction, angrily observed that volunteer emergency personnel could have been put at significant risk had there been an accident involving the shipment.


“My own people, these volunteers that I have, could have been taken right into something that could have killed them,” he observed.


Rep. Amory Houghton, R-N.Y., whose district includes the West Valley site and who had been supportive of DOE’s earlier plans for moving the waste, immediately wrote to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham calling DOE’s action “irresponsible.” 


Certainly the security situation in this country has changed since 9/11.  But to use 9/11 as an excuse to avoid the inconvenience of involving and interacting with states on matters of nuclear waste transportation is unconscionable and invariably results in less security, not more. 


If this is the precedent DOE is setting for the tens of thousands of shipments of spent fuel and high-level waste to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, emergency response and law enforcement personnel, not to mention the 50 million or so people who live close to nuclear waste highway and rail routes, will find themselves at significant and unnecessary risk.



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