For the better part of the past two decades, the Department of Energy (DOE) has been studying Nevada’s Yucca Mountain to determine if the site would be suitable as a high-level nuclear waste repository. The investigation was initially mandated by passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) in 1982, which directed DOE to identify a deep geologic formation suitable for the permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste produced by both industry and government. Then in 1987, Congress amended the act identifying Yucca Mountain as the sole site for continued study. The study site adjacent to the Nevada Test Site is located approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Although the repository was originally scheduled to open by 1998, technical and political delays have advanced that date to 2010. In April of 1997, DOE completed a three-year effort carving a five-mile tunnel through the mountain to house an Exploratory Studies Facility to gather data concerning the suitability of the site. Also in 1997, frustrated by the numerous delays, Congress directed DOE to prepare a viability assessment identifying the progress of research at Yucca Mountain.
After physical on-site testing and analysis of several models, DOE issued its report entitled “Viability Assessment of a Repository at Yucca Mountain,” in December 1998. The report indicated nuclear waste would be transported to the site by specially licensed trucks and trains, starting in 2010. The waste would be placed in containers designed for long-term storage, sealed, and placed in the repository 200 meters below the ground surface and 100 meters above the groundwater table. After 100 years, during which time the waste would be monitored, the facility would be permanently closed and sealed. While it was anticipated that the storage containers would eventually disintegrate, the surrounding volcanic tuff was considered to be a suitable natural barrier against waste migration. The report also stated there would be no radiation emanating from the site to endanger local residents for 10,000 years.
Although the siting of an interim facility at Yucca Mountain was prohibited in 1987 as a concession for identifying Yucca Mountain as the designated nuclear waste site, a number of states have been anxious to remove high-level wastes from DOE sites and commercial reactors within their borders. Proposals to site interim facilities in Washington and South Carolina have raised vigorous objections by those state’s delegations. Therefore, Congress proposed legislation to establish a surface facility adjacent to Yucca Mountain for interim storage. Although such legislation has failed to obtain the necessary support to override an anticipated presidential veto in past congresses, proponents nevertheless have pushed for the passage of Senate bill 1287 in the current session. The bill, entitled the “Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2000,” was originally written to require DOE to move spent fuel currently residing at 81 individual reactor sites to a temporary centralized storage facility at Yucca Mountain. In a compromise with the Clinton administration, however, the bill was modified to simply allow the spent fuel to be delivered to the Yucca Mountain site as early as 2007, which would be several years ahead of the permanent repository completion date.
While there seems to be agreement that a safe repository for nuclear waste is essential, determining the ideal site or series of sites has been problematic. The issues on both sides of the controversy were voiced during the several hours of debate on May 2 with Nevada’s senators leading the opposition. Senator Richard Bryan (D-NV) claimed the bill’s environmental standards were insufficient and termed the legislation “mobile Chernobyl,” referring to transportation of the waste to Nevada. That theme was echoed by legislators representing states along proposed transportation corridors through which the waste must pass on its route to the proposed repository. Others suggested that long-term storage in concrete casks at nuclear power plants is a much safer alternative. Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and was lead sponsor of S. 1287, pointed out that such a solution would keep the waste at 81 sites in 40 states instead of in a remote site in the Nevada desert.
The legislation passed in the Senate by a 64-34 vote and was approved in the House 253-167. The Senate vote fell three votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a threatened presidential veto. The House vote also fell short. As expected, President Clinton vetoed the legislation on April 25th stating, among other reasons, that the bill would limit the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing radiation standards to protect human health and the environment. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Republican-MS) scheduled a vote in early May in an attempt to override the veto, bit that vote again failed to achieve the needed supermajority by three votes. Although proponents of the bill believe action on the bill is still possible during this session of Congress, no action is expected until after the November election. It is worth noting that both presidential candidates have opposed the movement of high-level nuclear waste to the Yucca Mountain site until it is deemed scientifically safe to do so.
Although it appears that Congress continues to move closer to a legislative solution for nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain, any decision must still overcome political, regulatory, transportation, and possible judicial obstacles. Unless a new technology emerges that has the capacity to serve the nation’s ever growing energy needs combined with the ultimate depletion of fossil fuels, the demand for nuclear energy can only increase as will the accompanying problem of nuclear waste disposal.
The Government Affairs column is a bimonthly feature written by John Dragonetti, CPG-02779, who is Senior Advisor to the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program.
This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.
Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.
Posted January 10, 2000
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