Nuclear, Reactors, Waste Management & Decommissioning

Senate votes in support of Yucca Mountain project

By Sylvie Dale, Online Editor

July 10, 2002 — Ending years of political debate, the U.S. Senate on Tuesday voted to override Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn’s veto and proceed with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage project.

The vote will set the final process in motion which will build the country’s first permanent nuclear waste storage site 90 miles from Las Vegas.

To expedite the Senate vote, Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska made use of a special procedure provided for in the Nuclear Waste Repository Act, which supercedes the normal authority of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle to make a motion to proceed to a piece of legislation. Following Murkowski’s action, the Senate limited debate to 4 1/2 hours and then approved the resolution to override Guinn’s veto.

The Senate override would allow the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to license the project, which could begin accepting waste in 2010. The project is designed to hold a maximum of 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste from the nation’s power plants and other sources.

The decision will not sit well with environmentalists and many of Nevada’s residents. Opponents of the plan say that despite the $7 billion pricetag of the preliminary site studies, not enough questions have been answered about whether the environment can be protected. A recent congressional General Accounting Office report lists 293 unanswered safety and technical questions about the plan, National Public Radio reported.

Although the area is very dry, some have said a major flood could cause groundwater to rush through the storage area and out into the surrounding communities. But energy department researchers have said there would be sufficient containment in the form of several protective layers, plus the casks themselves would not be susceptible to corrosion.

The area is also known to be seismically active, having recently experienced a 4.4-magnitude earthquake.

Nuclear officials working on the Yucca Mountain project said they are aware that more than 600 seismic events of a magnitude greater than 2.5 have happened since 1976 within an 80-mile radius, and that their planning takes this fact into account.

The third major concern, and perhaps the strongest at this time, is the routes by which the waste will be transported to the permanent storage site from over a hundred temporary storage sites around the country. Many communities are concerned about the potential for traffic accidents or terrorist action as the waste is transported within a few miles of populated areas.

If the project goes forward, more than 108,000 shipments of waste will cross highways and railroads in 43 states for 38 years, Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada said during arguments before the House.

Berkley said there are some future issues that the plan won’t resolve. “First of all, contrary to what the nuclear industry would have us believe, a central repository would not mean that reactor sites around the country would be cleaned out,” Berkley said.

“According to the government’s shipping plans, in the year 2036, when Yucca Mountain is filled to capacity, there will still be 44,000 tons of nuclear waste stored at reactor sites. That means that after 38 years of shipping high level waste through our cities and towns we will have reduced on-site storage of nuclear waste by a mere 4%.

“These figures also pre-date proposals to increase our dependence on nuclear power, so this is a conservative estimate of how much waste would still be stored at reactor sites by mid-Century. Why would we want to ship nuclear waste across 45 states for 38 years if it makes no difference in the amount of waste stored on-site throughout the country?”

Outweighing this concern in the Senate vote was the concern that the temporary storage sites are filling up and something must be done to get the existing nuclear waste to a safer location that is designed for long-term storage.

The House on May 8 voted to push forward with the project, leaving debate on the $58 billion project in the hands of the Senate.

Nuclear generating facilities currently provide more than 20 percent of the country’s electricity. These facilities’ spent fuel is being stored at 131 sites, many of which are nearly full.

Southern Company’s Bill Heerman gives readers an exclusive insider’s tour of the Yucca Mountain site in EL&P’s upcoming August issue.

Links
More information about the Yucca Mountain Project, including the Final EPA Radiation Protection Standards for Yucca Mountain (40 CFR 197) is on the DOE web site at: http://www.ymp.gov.

The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s Washington-based policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available at http://www.state.nv.us/nucwaste/.