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

Volume 1 Issue 18 ~ December 1, 2003






- Nevada Presses for Investigation of Potential Chain Reactions of Nuclear Waste Stored at Yucca Mountain

- What’s Wrong With Putting Nuclear Waste in Yucca Mountain? The NRC Licensing Procedure (third in a series)

- Outrage of the Week


Nevada Presses for Investigation of Potential Chain Reactions of Nuclear Waste Stored at Yucca Mountain

Secret DOE documents indicate corrosion of waste storage packages could result in up to 60 nuclear reactions over
10,000-year life of repository
Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects today asked the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) to investigate the potential for nuclear waste stored underground at the proposed Yucca Mountain repository to undergo an uncontrolled chain reaction, a possibility the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) secretly documented but shielded when preparing environmental studies for the facility.

In a Nov. 25 letter to NWTRB Chairman Dr. Michael Corradini, agency Executive Director Bob Loux stated that DOE documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act “anticipate that, if the repository operates as is now planned, up to 60 nuclear criticalities may plausibly occur inside the mountain, and that the conditional probability of occurrence may be greater than one in one thousand per year.”

“The discovery of these once-hidden documents indicates that DOE was well aware of the risk of waste package damage and radioactive releases into the environment, but attempted to hide it, knowing that internal criticality may be one of the most, if not the most, significant safety issues in repository licensing,” Loux said.

DOE, which responded to Nevada’s Freedom of Information Act requests in October and November, did not list the documents in mandatory documentation filed as part of Nevada’s pending court cases as being relevant to either the repository’s safety or its environmental impacts, Loux said. 

Nevada has filed a series of lawsuits against the DOE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aimed at blocking licensing and development of Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as a repository for 77,000 metric tons of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is slated to hear arguments in the consolidated cases Jan. 14.  Nevada officials have said these lawsuits may present the best opportunity yet to stop the proposed nuclear waste dump from being built at Yucca Mountain.

Because of the DOE’s omissions, Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval today simultaneously filed a request for the court to permit the so-called Administrative Record for Nevada’s court cases to be supplemented with the secret DOE documents obtained by the state. 

Loux said the DOE documents raise dramatic new safety and security issues concerning the Yucca Mountain project that DOE previously claimed were of negligible importance.

“First, they show that if the waste packages stored in the repository corrode and permit water to enter, a spontaneous nuclear chain reaction is a great enough possibility that up to 60 such events could be expected in the repository, with a likelihood of occurrence of more than one in one thousand per year,” Loux said. 

Conversely, DOE in its Final Environmental Impact Statement for Yucca Mountain, claimed that the probability of such an event occurring was less than two in 10 million over the entire 10,000 years the repository must be in compliance with regulations, Loux added.

DOE’s studies acknowledged that if such a criticality event did occur, it could dramatically affect nuclear waste releases to the environment by damaging waste packages and thereby accelerating and concentrating releases.  Though DOE’s analysts repeatedly recommended that the consequences of such an event be studied, no such studies have been performed to date, Loux said.

DOE acknowledged in the documents that, with the presence of water, the risk of criticality is “greatly increased,” since water makes nuclear waste more susceptible to a chain reaction.

The documents also reveal that DOE markedly understated the risks and consequences of a terrorist attack on a spent fuel cask in transport to Yucca Mountain, since DOE failed to consider that, if a cask were perforated by a commercially available portable armor-piercing missile, a nuclear criticality event could occur, especially if water was able to enter the cask.

Such an event would almost certainly cause what DOE called a “violent event,” exploding the cask and dispersing its radioactive contents into the environment. 

In one of its lawsuits, Nevada had called this scenario the ultimate “dirty bomb” for a terrorist who might choose to target a cask with a missile or aircraft as it made its way through downtown Chicago or St. Louis.  Though water or jet fuel would have to enter the perforated cask for criticality to occur, Nevada had argued that rainwater, firefighters’ spray, jet fuel, or submersion of the cask in a river or waterway were easy to envision.  DOE called the allegations “mere conjecture.”

However, DOE’s secret documents reveal that its own analysts thought the risk of criticality occurring in a cask in the presence of water was so high that analysis of the consequences should be mandatory.  Loux said DOE ignored that advice. 


What’s wrong with putting nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain? The NRC Licensing Procedure (third in a series)
Federal law requires that the Department of Energy obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to construct and operate a nuclear waste repository.  However, Nevada’s studies show that a repository at the proposed Yucca Mountain site won’t come close to meeting even the NRC's new, lax safety rules during the 10,000 year compliance period. 

To obtain a license, for example, DOE must show that water moving through Yucca Mountain will not corrode waste emplacement containers for 10,000 years or, if corrosion does occur, that radioactive waste quantities reaching the accessible environment will not be enough to exceed EPA dose limits.  Nevada studies show, however, that the canisters will corrode rapidly in the subsurface environment at Yucca Mountain, causing radioactive material to move quickly into the groundwater, with resulting radiation exposures in excess of permissible safety regulations.

Some other licensing issues where studies show Yucca Mountain cannot pass muster include the potential for volcanic activity at and near the site, the likelihood of nuclear criticality occurring within the repository, and the risk of aircraft crashes into repository surface facilities from operation at the Nellis Air Force Range.

DOE says it will file a license application with the NRC in December 2004, thus beginning a three- to four-year legal contest in which DOE bears the burden for demonstrating repository safety.
Nevada has engaged a world-class team of scientists to work with
Nevada’s attorneys throughout the licensing process.  The State intends to demonstrate that the repository fails safety tests at every single stage. 

(Editor's note: Future editions of Yucca Mountain Update will feature more "What's wrong with Yucca Mountain" articles covering a wide range of issues.)

Outrage of
the Week

NRC Abandons
Its Principles

The week of November 17th, 2003 may well be remembered as the date the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) surrendered whatever remaining vestiges of credibility the nuclear licensing agency had with Nevada and Nevadans.  Despite repeated assurances from NRC over the years that the process for licensing a Yucca Mountain repository would be open and entirely transparent, NRC chose to ban State of Nevada, affected local governments and the public from the a series of pivotal meetings that week with DOE’s Yucca Mountain staff and consultants held specifically to review DOE’s studies and findings with respect to critical site suitability and licensing issues. 

That NRC is colluding with DOE and smoothing the way for DOE’s license application comes as no surprise.  What is surprising – and a departure from the more subtle DOE/NRC collaboration that has been occurring for years – is the brazen way NRC brushed aside even the appearance of openness in closing the DOE meetings from any sort of external scrutiny. 

While there have been troubling instances of inappropriate NRC and DOE staff contacts, including numerous meetings over the years that Nevada officials were ‘inadvertently’ not informed about, the decision to officially close a crucial series of topical meetings dealing directly with licensing and pre-licensing matters marks a major departure for the NRC, which has historically attempted to maintain at least the fiction of openness and impartiality.

Coming on the heels of major and potentially devastating revelations about a whole host of technical problems at Yucca Mountain, including the susceptibility of DOE’s proposed waste disposal containers to rapid corrosion in the subsurface environment and the likelihood that radioactive waste buried at the site could go critical, the decision to hold these meetings in secret takes on a sinister interpretation.  The question that must be asked is, why close the sessions if DOE and NRC have nothing to hide?

The answer appears obvious.  The two sister agencies find themselves in a growing dilemma – how to effectively shepherd Yucca Mountain through a rigorous licensing process when all of these serious deficiencies keep cropping up.  NRC’s solution: Sit the DOE side down and feed them the licensing script out of earshot of the State, local governments and the public. 

This is not the first time NRC has revealed its true Yucca Mountain colors.  Back in May, 2002, then-Chairman Richard Meserve testified before a nervous Congress (which was then debating whether to override Governor Guinn’s veto of the Yucca Mountain site recommendation) that the NRC is satisfied DOE would be able to submit an acceptable license application, even though NRC’s own staff had, at the time, identified 293 unresolved issues – glaring gaps in the information supporting DOE’s decision to move ahead with Yucca Mountain, any one of which could prove to represent a fatal defect for the proposed repository project.

Instead of testifying as the objective, impartial arbiter of fact with regard to the proposed first of a kind facility and the transportation of spent nuclear fuel to a repository, Chairman Meserve descended into the role of project advocate as he sought to assure Senators that Yucca Mountain was a suitable site and that waste transportation is safe. 

Perhaps the greatest irony in NRC’s decision to close key aspects of its Yucca Mountain activities to the public lies in the timing of the secret meetings.  Just a week before the sessions, NRC released a draft of its 2004 – 2009 Strategic Plan in which NRC set forth as series of “principles of good regulation.” 

Principle number two on the first page of the draft Plan states, “Nuclear regulation is the public’s business, and it must be transacted publicly and candidly.  The public must be informed about and have the opportunity to participate in the regulatory processes required by law.

For NRC in the case of Yucca Mountain, the political imperative of helping DOE cover up fundamental problems of a dangerously defective site obviously takes precedent over the need for openness as a principle of good regulation.

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