- British Hydrologists Join
Nevada's Scientific Team in Analyzing Yucca Mountain
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
New experts’ findings could help state derail
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Butler, 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, a 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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
people, these volunteers that I have, could have been taken right into
something that could have killed them,” he observed.
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
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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