Nev. nuclear waste site safe, cheap, but key issues remain, report says

While radiation leaks would be small, effect of water flow is uncertain


WASHINGTON -- A preliminary report on a nuclear waste storage project in Nevada concludes that very little radiation would leak from the site and that a repository there would be as safe and much cheaper than securing the waste where it now collects, at dozens of sites around the nation.

The preliminary environmental impact statement, released yesterday by the Department of Energy, acknowledges, though, that some key issues are not understood well enough to recommend using the place, Yucca Mountain, Nev., in the desert about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The flow of water in the area is a major uncertainty. Opponents say assumptions in the report used by the department about water flow are contradicted by other evidence the department has gathered.

A department official involved in the Yucca Mountain project acknowledged that "we have a lot of work to do" before a recommendation is made to the energy secretary to proceed with construction. But, he said, "We probably know more about Yucca than any other piece of property on the earth."

The report is a milestone in the department's plan to build the repository. Another milestone is likely early next week, when the Environmental Protection Agency plans to issue a draft of the rules that a repository would have to meet to be licensed for operation. The EPA will call for the repository to contain the bulk of the radiation for 10,000 years, but people familiar with the draft said that the agency had not decided how many miles the radiation should be allowed to spread in that period.

The entire proposed site, which is 230 square miles, is controlled by the Energy Department, the Air Force or the Bureau of Land Management. But water flowing underground would eventually carry radioactive materials beyond the site's borders.

The impact statement for the first time evaluates the safety of leaving the waste where it is, at 72 commercial reactor sites and five Energy Department sites, and finds little safety difference, if storage canisters at the existing sites can be replaced every century or so. But it finds that leaving the waste there would be much more expensive in the long run than storage at Yucca Mountain.

The report says leaving the waste where it is would cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year for thousands of years, while the repository would cost tens of billions of dollars.

The statement is another step in the department's case to move ahead with a project that critics say is doomed to fail because engineers and scientists cannot say what will happen in coming millenniums, when gradual climate change could make Nevada a wet area, which could rust the containers and spread the waste.

Pub Date: 8/07/99

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