Bush picks Yucca for nuclear waste

Questions remain about safety of site in Nevada mountain

February 16, 2002|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YUCCA MOUNTAIN, Nev. - President Bush picked a 1,200-foot-tall, flat-topped volcanic ridge yesterday as the site to entomb up to 77,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste now piling up at 131 commercial, military and research reactors around the country.

Bush, who announced his decision in a letter to Congress, said, "Proceeding with the repository program is necessary to protect public safety, health, and the nation's security because successful completion of this project would isolate in a geologic repository at a remote location highly radioactive materials now scattered throughout the nation."

The desolate site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas could begin receiving the waste - some of which will remain deadly for more than 10,000 years - as early as 2010. About $4.5 billion has been spent on excavating and testing the site during the past two decades.

Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and the No. 2 ranking senator, anticipating the selection of Yucca Mountain, denounced Bush's action as "a hasty, poor and indefensible decision" when "the science does not yet exist" to ensure that the wastes can be contained for thousands of years.

Critics say that water seeping through the site will erode the metal containers in which the waste will be stored, and that the volcanic rock has multiple fractures that will allow radiation to escape.

Bush called his recommendation of the site "the culmination of two decades of intense scientific scrutiny involving application of an array of scientific and technical disciplines."

"The claims that we haven't studied this enough are a little distorted," said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who recommended selection of the site to Bush in a letter Thursday.

Nevada's governor, Kenny Guinn, a Republican, is expected to formally object to Bush's selection of the site. That action would shift the decision to Congress, which will have 90 days to vote on it. If both houses of Congress approve the plan by a majority vote, the Energy Department will have 90 days to submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

If the project moves forward, Yucca Mountain will become a $58 billion temple honoring the survival of commercial nuclear power in this country, which is the nation's second-largest source of energy after coal and generates about 2,000 tons of waste a year.

If the plan stalls, Yucca Mountain could become the mausoleum in which the industry is buried.

No new U.S. nuclear plants have been built since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. And none is likely to be built until a permanent home is found for the spent fuel.

Congress directed the Energy Department to begin removing the nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain four years ago. But the plan fell behind schedule, and some utilities are suing the government for breaching its obligation. The potential liability of the lawsuits exceeds $50 billion.

The nuclear waste will be stored about 1,000 feet beneath the mountain's surface and 1,000 feet above the water table. Scientists have used an exploratory tunnel to conduct geohydrology studies to determine how water moves through the mountain and to assess the likelihood that it would seep into the area where the nuclear waste would be stored and into the ground water below.

Tests show that if radioactive contaminants escape from the tunnel, it would take about 300 years for them to enter the water table, and about another 1,000 for them to contaminate well water in Armagosa Valley, a community with a population of 1,400, about 20 miles south of Yucca Mountain.

Preventing contamination of the water table is one of the biggest concerns of the scientists working on the project. And one of their biggest headaches is the possibility that water will accumulate inside the repository.

It rains only about seven inches a year here, but the mountain's rock - compacted volcanic ash formed 13 million years ago - has more water than expected.

Scientists originally thought the rock would serve as a natural barrier to prevent the leakage of radioactive materials. But studies have shown that some of the rock is fractured and radioactive contaminants could escape during the thousands of years it will take for the waste to decay to non-threatening levels.

The Energy Department is also studying seven small, inactive volcanoes near Yucca Mountain, but its officials say the odds of any one of them erupting during the next 10,000 years are one in 70 million.

The potential repository sits between two inactive earthquake faults. There has been seismic activity in the area as recently as few years ago, but government geologists are quick to point out that seismic activity causes more damage above ground than below. They do not believe a quake would have an impact on the radioactive materials

The plan now calls for loading the nuclear material into "packages" made of a highly corrosion-resistant, nickel-based metal called Alloy 22, with an inner layer of stainless steel.

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