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Open mind may help close rad-waste lid.

Open mind may help close rad-waste lid

The United States should revamp its "rigid" approach to assessing, designing and building a high-level radioactive-waste repository, according to a "position statement" by the National Research Council's Board on Radioactive Waste Management. Otherwise, this independent advisory board warns, permanent-storage efforts may stall, raising the prospect that spent nuclear power-plant fuel could continue to accumulate indefinitely in surface storage depots.

Without giving specific examples, the 34-page report released July 18 characterizes storage rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as excessively prescriptive and detailed. Such rules include NRC's requirement that planners assume all storage canisters will last no more than 1,000 years, says Charles Fairhurst of the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, the board's vice-chairman.

The lifetime of copper canisters apparently far exceeds that NRC cap. If the Energy Department (DOE) could use such actual lifetimes, Fairhurst says, it might cut the cost and effort now spent designing and testing superfluous barriers. Regulations like this and others governing groundwater movement and radioactivity leakage could sink the program, warns the report.

The report also suggest current regularions encourage the "unsound' use of geophysical models to prdict the performance of proposed sites. Trying to exact an "impossible" level of certainty from these models, the report charges,

oversteps the limits of the models, current geological knowledge and site data.

Permanently burying high-level wastes deep underground remains untried as yet, notes Fairhurst. Yet, by law, DOE must do this, and it is focusing on a site within Nevada's Yucca Mountain for its first repository (SN: 1/6/90, p. 11). Under present rules, Fairhurst says, DOE's task is like designing an airplane "without ever flying a prototype."

The position paper urges that DOE be allowed to "design (and improve the design)" as it proceeds with waste conttainment. By that approach, DOE would publicly accept some degree of uncertainty as normal for a new and complex technical undertaking. This shift should enable the project to weather likely surprises without causing the public to lose faith in the work, says Frank L. Parker of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, chairman of the board issuing the report. He cites such surprises as the pressurized brine discovered unexpectedly in New Mexico at an intended repository for wastes from nuclear weapons plants (SN: 3/19/88, p. 188).

The report also recommends that EPA narrow its requirements imposed on DOE's waste facility to only a maximum public radiation dose, and let DOE choose how to meet that dose limit.

Robert R. Loux, executive director of Nevada's Nuclear Waste Project Office in Carson City, finds in the proposals a disturbing, "amoeba-type standard." A repository has to meet public health and safety requirements, Loux says. "We don't just mold and blend the criteria along the way. It's just not the way things are done."
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Title Annotation:radioactive waste repository
Author:Weiss, Peter L.
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 28, 1990
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