Fallout over Nevada's nuclear destiny: plans to bury highly radioactive wastes reignite the Silver State.Fallout Over Nevada's Nuclear Destiny
"We've solved the nuclear waste problem," declared Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) two years ago when Congress instructed the Department of Energy to consider permanently interring the nation's high-level nuclear wastes within Nevada's Yucca Mountain Yucca Mountain, mountain in the SW Nevada desert about 100 mi (161 km) northwest of Las Vegas. It is the proposed site of a Dept. of Energy (DOE) repository for up to 77,000 metric tons of nuclear waste (including commercial and defense spent fuel and high-level .
Now, Johnston isn't so sure about that, and many others echo his uncertainty.
In late November, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced dramatic revisions in its plans for site analysis and preconstruction testing at Yucca Mountain and in its long-term schedule for interring wastes. Though Congress had ordered the federal government to begin accepting high-level radioactive wastes Noun 1. high-level radioactive waste - radioactive waste that left in a nuclear reactor after the nuclear fuel has been consumed
radioactive waste - useless radioactive materials that are left after some laboratory or commercial process is completed by 1998 for disposal at a yet-undetermined site, DOE now says it cannot offer a permanent storage vault until 2010 at the earliest. And even that prospect rests on the suitability of the Nevada site, where wastes would lie buried 1,200 feet below the surface. If the site proves unacceptable or unavailable, forcing DOE to look elsewhere, department officials say the earliest date for beginning permanent burial will slip well beyond 2010.
Indeed, if Nevada has its way, the department will have to scout out a new gravesite grave·site
A place used for graves or a grave. soon. DOE applied two years ago for state permits to begin preliminary testing at Yucca Mountain, and though such permits normally take 75 days to obtain, Nevada officials have yet to process even one. In November, DOE asked the Justice Department to bring suit against the state over the holdup, perhaps as early as this week. But Nevada Governor Bob Miller says he has no intention of issuing those permits -- ever.
Hanging in the balance is the fate of the nation's most dangerous garbage: some 95 million gallons of highly radioactive wastes generated at the nation's defense facilities and used fuel from defense and commercial nuclear reactors. Electric utilities running the nation's 110 nuclear power plants are likely to feel the pinch first and worst. Some could even face plant closings as a result.
With no licensed facility available to accept their wastes, utilities have been storing their spent fuel on-site, mostly in huge, heat-dissipating structures nicknamed "swimming pools." But their current stockpiles of radioactive roads -- totaling some 15,000 to 20,000 metric tons -- are expected to double within the next decade, notes Steven P. Kraft, director of nuclear waste and transportation for the Edison Electric Institute The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) is the association of United States shareholder-owned electric power companies. Its members serve 95 percent of the ultimate customers in the shareholder-owned segment of the industry, and represent approximately 70 percent of the U.S. in Washington, D.C. And with the storage pools already nearing capacity at several utilities, many commercial power generators are exploring other options, such as dry storage. Though less expensive than pool storage, dry storage could cost tens of millions of dollars per utility, Kraft says.
The nuclear power industry's most serious worry is that the lack of visible progress in fuel disposal will jeopardize its very existence. A federal regulation known as the waste-confidence rule specifies that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent U.S. government commission, created by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 and charged with licensing and regulating civilian use of nuclear energy to protect the public and the environment. can actually shut down plants if it cannot ascertain that the government has an ongoing waste-disposal program, Kraft explains.
"If there was a brief that the DOE program for examining Yucca Mountain was not moving forward, you would probably start seeing action within a year or so by individuals trying to get their local [nuclear power] plant shut down," says Kraft. And at least one state, California, has a statute prohibiting the licensing of any new nuclear plant until the nation's waste-disposal problem is solved.
In a Nov. 14 letter to Energy Secretary James D. Watkins Admiral James David Watkins (born on March 7, 1927) is a retired U.S. Navy officer and former Chief of Naval Operations who also served as U.S. Secretary of Energy during the George H. W. Bush Administration and chaired U.S. government commissions on HIV/AIDS and ocean policy. , Miller asserts that scientific analyses by his state indicate Yucca Mountain fails to meet several key qualifying criteria for entombing radioactive waste. Moreover, the governor argues, because Nevada's legislature has "lawfully vetoed" the proposed facility, DOE's authority "to pursue the Yucca Mountain site as a nuclear waste repository has terminated."
Under the federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act, states have the right to veto a federal facility within their territory, says Robert R. Loux, executive director of Nevada's Nuclear Waste Project Office in Carson City Carson City, city (1990 pop. 40,443), state capital, W Nev., in the Eagle valley; inc. 1875. The city is a trade center for a mining and agricultural area. State government is the major employer, and tourism is economically important. . Last April, Nevada lawmakers passed a joint resolution declaring their state unwilling to accept a nuclear repository. While federal lawmakers can override such a veto, "Congress did not act within the required 90 days," Loux says. And in July, a state law instituted a statutory prohibition against storing radioactive wastes anywhere within Nevada's borders.
As Nevada officials view it, Loux says, Yucca Mountain's selection as the only candidate for the nation's first licensed high-level nuclear waste dump "was based wholly and solely on political considerations." Moreover, he contends, "all pretence that science would ever factor into a decision of where to place these wastes went out the door" when Congress decided two years ago to narrow DOE's geologic-suitability analyses from three sites to just Yucca Mountain (SN: 2/27/88, p.139). As a result, DOE's incentive to find this site acceptable is now so great that it hinders objective evaluation of potentially disqualifying dis·qual·i·fy
tr.v. dis·qual·i·fied, dis·qual·i·fy·ing, dis·qual·i·fies
a. To render unqualified or unfit.
b. To declare unqualified or ineligible.
2. factors, Loux says.
In his letter, Miller lays out three such factors: active tectonics tectonics
Scientific study of the deformation of the rocks that make up the Earth's crust and the forces that produce such deformation. It deals with the folding and faulting associated with mountain building; the large-scale, gradual, upward and downward movements of the , the potential for movement of contaminated contaminated,
v 1. made radioactive by the addition of small quantities of radioactive material.
2. made contaminated by adding infective or radiographic materials.
3. an infective surface or object. groundwater from the site, and mineralization Mineralization
The process by which the body uses minerals to build bone structure.
Mentioned in: Rickets
n the bioprecipitation of an inorganic substance. .
Under federal law, any site with a history of active geologic processes that might lead to future releases of radioactive waste must be disqualified dis·qual·i·fy
tr.v. dis·qual·i·fied, dis·qual·i·fy·ing, dis·qual·i·fies
a. To render unqualified or unfit.
b. To declare unqualified or ineligible.
2. , Loux notes, "and we think these conditions exist at Yucca Mountain. There is young, active volcano within 7 miles of the site. And according to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.
2. In keeping with: according to instructions.
3. DOE's own data, there are 32 active faults on the site itself."
Yucca Mountain's many geologic faults and its large amount of fractured rock also suggest contaminated water could escape through a network of cracks, carrying leached wastes 5 kilometers or more than the site in as little as 400 or 500 years, according to state analyses. Federal requirements prohibit building a nuclear waste repository where water can travel 5 km from the burial site in less than 1,000 years. "DOE concedes that if the state's view is right, then the site's no good," Loux says. "But they've refused to do any real work to find that out."
Finally, to keep prospectors from digging into interred wastes at some distant time, federal law calls for a site devoid of precious natural resources. Yet Yucca Mountain "is probably among the most highly mineralized min·er·al·ize
v. min·er·al·ized, min·er·al·iz·ing, min·er·al·iz·es
1. To convert to a mineral substance; petrify.
2. To transform a metal into a mineral by oxidation.
3. areas on this continent," Loux says. "In fact, two of North America's biggest gold mines are within a stone's throw stone's throw
A short distance.
a short distance
Noun 1. -- 15 to 20 miles away." He adds that the U.S. Geological Survey The term geological survey can be used to describe both the conduct of a survey for geological purposes and an institution holding geological information.
A geological survey "has already found gold and silver in several bore holes at Yucca Mountain."
Ultimately, such issues may indeed disqualify To deprive of eligibility or render unfit; to disable or incapacitate.
To be disqualified is to be stripped of legal capacity. A wife would be disqualified as a juror in her husband's trial for murder due to the nature of their relationship. the site, says DOE's Philip A. Garon. However, he adds, DOE cannot make that assessment until it can begin site characterization studies. And to conduct useful investigations, "we need those environmental permits [from the state]", he told SCIENCE NEWS.
As for Nevada's Claim to have lawfully vetoed the site, Garon says DOE interprets the Nuclear Waste Policy Act as saying that the only veto that counts comes after the President recommends a site for permanent waste storage. Even if Yucca Mountain's geology proves acceptable, Garon says, such a recommendation is at best many years off.
On Nov. 28, DOE announced it would immediately seek authorization to begin constructing an interim storage facility for high-level wastes, though it did not specify a site. The plan involves building a simple, above-ground structure called a monitored retrievable storage (MRS MRS - Modifiable Representation System.
An integration of logic programming into Lisp.
["A Modifiable Representation System", M. Genesereth et al, HPP 80-22, CS Dept Stanford U 1980]. ) facility -- a sort of halfway house halfway house /half·way house/ (haf´wa hous) a residence for patients (e.g., mental patients, drug addicts, alcoholics) who do not require hospitalization but who need an intermediate degree of care until they can return to the community. for wastes awaiting permanent disposal. Two years ago, Congress debated whether to authorize the construction of such a facility. In the end, it decided to allow DOE to build an interim facility -- but only if the department first found a suitable permanent repository site and received construction authorization for that site from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
As things now stand, the earliest the Energy Department could meet these criteria and begin accepting wastes at an MRS would be 2007, says Jane A. Axelrad, executive director of the MRS Review Commission, a presidentially appointed panel that expired Dec. 31. However, if Congress agrees to let DOE begin constructing an interim facility before fulfilling the specified criteria -- as the review commission recommended in its Nov. 1 report to Congress -- "we believe it could begin receiving waste maybe as early as 1998," says DOE's Ginger P. King.
Dan W. Reicher, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a New York City-based, non-profit non-partisan international environmental advocacy group, with offices in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Beijing. Founded in 1970, NRDC today has 1. in Washington, D.C. doesn't like that idea. Allowing DOE to develop an MRS before it obtains a construction license for a permanent waste repository "would significantly undercut efforts to find a permanent resting place for high-level wastes," he told SCIENCE NEWS. In fact, Reicher says he worries that "the [MRS] itself could end up as a de facto [Latin, In fact.] In fact, in deed, actually.
This phrase is used to characterize an officer, a government, a past action, or a state of affairs that must be accepted for all practical purposes, but is illegal or illegitimate. repository." Congress sought to prevent just that when it tied MRS construction to the acquisition of a construction license for the permanent repository, he notes.
Just last week, Nevada filed a suit against DOE's Watkins with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco San Francisco (săn frănsĭs`kō), city (1990 pop. 723,959), coextensive with San Francisco co., W Calif., on the tip of a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, which are connected by the strait known as the Golden . The suit asks the court to validate Nevada's legislative actions vetoing the nuclear repository, and to consider whether Watkins could legally ignore the potentially disqualifying factors raised by Miller in his Nov. 14 letter. It also seeks an injunction to stop further federal work on the Yucca mountain project.
Thus the seeds have been sown sown
A past participle of sow1.
Adj. 1. sown - sprinkled with seed; "a seeded lawn"
planted - set in the soil for growth for intense negotiations between DOE and Congress over early authorization for an MRS, and between DOE and Nevada over whether and now to establish Yucca Mountain's suitability as a permanent nuclear dump. What all this suggests, Reicher says, is that the high-level nuclear waste problem "appears anything but solved."