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High-level Nuclear Waste Legislation (12-10-04)

For twenty years, the Department of Energy (DOE) has been working to develop a central repository for spent nuclear fuel and defense-related high-level radioactive waste. Since 1987, the only site under consideration has been Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada adjacent to the Nevada Test Site. DOE has spent over $6 billion characterizing the site's suitability for long-term containment of nuclear waste. With the repository not scheduled to open until 2010 at the earliest, spent nuclear fuel is presently stored at eighty-one commercial reactor facilities around the country as well as a number of DOE former weapons production sites. President Bush approved the Yucca Mountain site in 2002, prompting formal opposition from the State of Nevada that Congress subsequently overrode. The Yucca Mountain project has now begun transitioning from site characterization to licensing and construction, a phase likely to be fraught with legal roadblocks.

Most Recent Action

On December 8th, the National Commission on Energy Policy issued a report that proposed building at least two temporary nuclear waste storage facilities to guard against further delays on the Yucca Mountain project. Many nuclear utilities, who pay directly into the nuclear waste trust fund, have sued the DOE for failure to deliver the project on time. According to Greenwire, nuclear industry officials were lukewarm about the idea, saying that they remain committed to finishing Yucca as soon as possible and transporting the waste just once. (12/10/04)

Previous Action

On February 6, 2003, in a report requested by DOE, a National Research Council committee recommended a staged approach for the construction, operation, closure, and post-closure of nuclear-waste disposal projects, including Yucca Mountain. Entitled One Step at a Time: The Staged Development of Geologic Repositories for High-Level Radioactive Waste, the report examined the application of what the committee called "adaptive staging" to geologic repositories for high-level radioactive waste. Adaptive staging is a management process that implements a project in stages that allows the flexibility to incorporate operational experience and scientific reevaluations. Such an approach can improve safety, reduce costs and environmental impacts, speed up schedules, and build public support. Specifically addressing the Yucca Mountain repository, the committee concluded that the DOE is currently taking a linear approach, setting unrealistic schedules and omitting public involvement in some decision processes. The department should instead switch to a more adaptive approach "to retain the option of reversing a decision or action while moving forward with disposal." (3/1/03)

In March 2003, the DOE goal of opening the Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository by 2010 seemed less likely after the department announced another delay in the licensing process. At a meeting of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (USNRC) Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste, DOE reported that it will submit its construction license application for Yucca Mountain in 2005, a few months after the previously delayed date of December 2004. The original deadline set in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 was 90 days after President Bush's official designation of the site in October, 2002. At a hearing earlier in the month, House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-OH) told the DOE witness that, while the subcommittee supports the Yucca Mountain project, missing the submittal deadline is "not acceptable." The day before the postponement was announced, the USNRC released its second draft of the formal guidelines it will use to evaluate the DOE's license application. While federal law sets the licensing criteria for Yucca Mountain, the Yucca Mountain Review Plan, Draft Final Revision outlines how the USNRC will review the application material to assure that DOE is in compliance with the regulations. The state of Nevada has previously filed suits with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit over the regulations that define the licensing criteria. According to Greenwire, these pending litigations recently prompted the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas to place the DOE's suit attempting to gain the permanent water rights at Yucca Mountain on hold until after the U.S. Court of Appeals rules on Nevada's other cases, which are expected to begin in September. (4/4/03)

On April 7, 2002, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development held a hearing on the fiscal year 2004 budget request for the Department of Energy's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which oversees the Yucca Mountain Project. The hearing, similar to the one held by the counterpart House subcommittee hearing on March 20th, emphasized the need of the DOE to receive its full request in order to safely proceed with the schedule of projects at Yucca Mountain. See AGI's Fiscal Year 2004 Appropriations Hearings page for additional information. (4/8/03)

On April 30, 2003, the National Academies' National Research Council released Long-Term Stewardship of DOE Legacy Waste Sites: A Status Report that analyzed the long-term plans and practices for three of the Department of Energy (DOE) legacy waste sites, and to recommend improvements to those plans. Legacy waste sites are sites contaminated with radioactive and chemical wastes from the production of nuclear weapons and research that require long-term to indefinite management. The committee found that DOE has no strategy for balancing its objective of accelerated cleanup with the objective of protection from future risks, and that long-term stewardship continues to be an afterthought of the Department. To remedy the situation, the committee recommended DOE explicitly incorporate stewardship responsibilities into the clean-up decisions, and that the Department look beyond simply complying with regulations in order to protect human health and the environment for the long term. (5/2/03)

On July 25, 2003, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) introduced his Utah Test and Training Range Protection Act (H.R. 2909) to designate part of this Air Force training range aside for wilderness protection. If approved, the bill could interfere with the high-level nuclear waste storage facility proposed for nearby Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation land. The $3.1 billion facility would house all the nuclear power fuel used in the past 30 years as an alternative to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. While it is supported by may Goshute Reservation representatives, it is opposed by Utah officials, including Bishop and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R). The proposed wilderness lands include the Cedar Mountain area, a necessary transportation corridor for the delivery of nuclear waste to the site. By protecting the Cedar Mountain area and others, Bishop would effectively block the creation of the repository by making its usage impossible. H.R. 2909 would continue to permit the Air Force to use airspace over the protected area but would exclude any military ground exercises. (8/18/03)

On October 16th the House Parks Subcommittee heard testimony on H.R. 2909, the Utah Test and Training Range Protection Act. The bill would subvert efforts by the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians to build a high-level nuclear waste repository on reservation land in Utah by creating a federal wilderness area and restricting access to the proposed site. To introduce his bill Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) said, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that fighter planes loaded down with live bombs and above-ground storage of high-level nuclear weate located downwind less than 60 nautical miles from Utah's populated Wasatch Front containing newly 2 million do not mix."

Members of the Subcommittee heard testimony from Scott Groene, Staff Attorney for the Southern Wilderness Alliance. Speaking for the Alliance as well as the Campaign for America's Wilderness, the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society, he testified that these groups have serious concerns about H.R. 2909 because too little information has been provided about how these proposed changes would affect public land, designated wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas. Echoing these concerns was Jim Hughes, Deputy Director for the Bureau of Land Management and Jeffery Loman, Activing Deoputy Director for Trust Services at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These gentlemen explained their frustration about the lack of specificity in the bill as to exactly which lands would be classified as wilderness. Also, they pointed out that this legislation would stymie an ongoing administrative review process that began in 1997 with the conditional approval of a 20-year license to receive, transfer, and store spent nuclear fueld on the Skull Valley Indian Reservation.

The Associate Director for Ranges and Airspace in the Directorate of Operations and Training for the Deputy Cheif of Staff for Air and Space Operation of the United States Air Force, Gerald F. Pease, Jr., raised similar concerns about the bill. He testified that the Air Force is concerned about access to adjacent public lands and the ability to accomplish test and training missions on the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR). (11/3/03)

On Friday, October 31st, Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) introduced legislation that would free the Yucca Mountain project from the whims of appropriators each year. This comes at a very opportune time as the Energy and Water Appropriations Conference Committee is deadlocked over how much to fund Yucca Mountain. According to Environment and Energy Daily, House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-OH) has called Yucca Mountain his "top priority," allocating $765 million for the planned high-level nuclear waste repository, an increase of $174 million over President Bush's request and $308 million more than FY '03. The extra money would help fund the development of a rail line in Nevada that would avoid transporting waste through the Las Vegas area.

This has set the House up to clash with Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Harry Reid (D-NV). He and the rest of Nevada's congressional delegation vigorously oppose Yucca Mountain. The Senate funded Yucca Mountain at $425 million, $166 million less than President Bush's request and $32 million lower than the FY '03 level.

According to the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, which is comprised of 45 organizations from 25 states, Yucca Mountain is already 12 years behind schedule and will fall even further behind if the Energy and Water spending bill does not include at least $591 million for the project. The $340 million difference between these two bills and the acrimonious negotiations have led some observers to believe that the Shimkus/Rush legislation is an idea whose time has come.

The bill would change the Nuclear Waste fund, a $14 billion account created to pay for the waste repository. Nuclear power users contribute more than $750 million into the fund each year through fees included in utility bills. With interest, the waste fund accumulates about $1.4 billion annually -- enough to fund Yucca Mountain until 2010. This legislation would allow the trust fund money to go directly to Yucca Mountain, re-establishing the link between consumer contribution and program funding. (11/3/03)

At a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste on Thursday, October 23rd, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) commissioner Edward McGaffian said that Energy Department plans to open the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in 2010 were not realistic, "It's almost a fact. 2010 is just about impossible." He added that 2015 was a more achievable target.

The NRC must approve DOE's plan for Yucca Mountain before the site can open. While conventional wisdom holds that opening the facility in 7 years is probably an impossibility, this was the first time a high-level official engaged with the discussions admitted the current time-table is unrealistic. (11/3/03)

A study published in the November-December issue of the journal American Mineralogist found that rock layers beneath the planned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository are rich in zeolites. These fine, tan-colored grains could act like giant sponges by both absorbing and releasing large amounts of water. They could also help absorb some of the remnants of nuclear waste if some were to escape from the facility. This would only become a factor if nuclear waste corrodes through artificial barriers that are required to contain the site for 10,000 years. The study's author, Indiana University mineralogy professor David Bish, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "It's safe to say that in the last five years there has been much greater reliance on the engineered barrier and less reliance on the geological barrier." But, facility planners "should not lose sight" that in the long-term geological barriers are much more predictable than manmade ones. Bish believes that DOE will use his study to bolster their case for the federal license required for the Yucca Mountain facility. DOE is expected to apply in December 2004. (11/12/03)

In a federal court hearing on January 14th, lawyers told the court that Yucca Mountain is not suitable to handle the radionuclides that could seep into groundwater sources thousands of years from now. The EPA only evaluated the site for 10,000 years in the future despite recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate for 300,000 years when the waste will be most hazardous. The casks that will hold the waste cannot last for more than 10,000 years, so the geology of the mountain alone must be able to isolate the waste over much longer time periods. The State of Nevada has long maintained that the rock at Yucca Mountain cannot isolate radioactive waste for more than 10,000 years. The lawyer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that the waste can be safely stored within a 10,000 year period. The ruling on the case is expected this summer, but the state of Nevada has promised a Supreme Court fight regardless of the outcome.

The court could rule in a manner that would effectively kill the project, or it could uphold the government's effort. Or it could remand segments back to federal agencies, an outcome that could cause further delays in a program already five years behind schedule. Other challenges the lawyers for Nevada brought to light were whether it was legal for Congress to pass the vote for the Yucca Mountain site despite veto objections from Governor Kenny Guinn. The government attorneys stated that the government acted within its power and that the veto was only consideration that was given to Gov. Guinn. The judges also stated: "congressional approval of the [Yucca Mountain] site in July 2002 made it a done deal that couldn't be overturned in court". (1/16/04)

The Department of Energy (DOE) announced on April 6th that the plan for transporting nuclear waste from 127 sites around the country to the Yucca Mountain repository will largely be by rail. An environmental impact statement will also be done to assess other routes within the proposed corridor in Nevada to the site, which is 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Unfortunately, the rail line will not be completed until 2016, six years after the Yucca Mountain site is scheduled to open. From 2010 to 2016 the waste will be transferred from rail casks to truck casks at an "intermodal transportation center" that will also need to be constructed. The rail casks hold between 125 and 150 tons of waste and are too heavy to go on the trucks, as those casks only hold 25 tons of waste. The plan to temporarily truck the waste through Nevada has angered state officials who fought Nevada's selection as the repository site. Greenwire reported that Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) said "I will work to cut their budget, and find other ways to slow down the project so we have time to expose all their faults before they are able to ram the project through." (4/7/04)

Greenwire reported on May 18th that a new study shows casks designed to hold radioactive nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain may not be sufficient. Rocks that seal the cask may release small amounts of mineral-rich water that will eventually corrode the cask within 1,000 years, according to Nevada officials who sponsored the study. Other groups such as the Nuclear Energy Institute claim that the casks will last up to 2 million years. (5/19/04)

The Department of Defense authorization bill, which awaits final vote by the Senate, allows the Department of Energy to reclassify Savannah River high level waste mixed with grout to be reclassified low level waste. Senators Larry Graham (R-SC), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Larry Craig (R-ID) recently led the passage of an amendment that will prevent any precedent from being set by the authorization bill in states with nuclear waste sites such as Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. The amendment also calls for intensified study of waste treatment techniques. (6/18/04)

The funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository remains at $131 million after the House Appropriations Committee passed the FY05 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill on June 16th. The original budget request for the project was $880 million, with only $131 million coming from Congress and the other $749 million from a reclassification of the nuclear industry's annual contributions to the Nuclear Waste Trust Fund. The reclassification legislation, H.R. 3981, is sponsored by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas). The bill would guarantee funding for the licensing and construction of the project. Unless this legislation passes, the currently appropriated funding would be insufficient to meet the scheduled 2010 opening date. (6/18/04)

The House Energy and Commerce Committee passed H.R. 3981 on June 25, allowing money from an annual nuclear waste fund to be used for the Yucca Mountain project through 2009. It was also decided the bill would not be added as a floor amendment to the Energy and Water Development appropriations bill, which only allocated $131 million for the project. It is expected that the money from the trust fund will keep Yucca Mountain on schedule for its site license approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December and its expected 2010 opening. However, the Committee was only authorized to allocate $576 million for Yucca Mountain in FY05, which means it is still $304 million short from the Office of Management and Budget's proposal and ultimately under funded. Because Congress only passed a one-year budget this year, Energy Committee staff estimate $750 million will be authorized from the trust fund for FY06 and beyond. Some who opposed the bill were in favor of a "direct spending" process that would give the Department of Energy (DOE) control over the waste fund spending. Bobby Rush (D-IL) amended the bill to require DOE to reduce future ratepayer contributions to the trust fund if any of the $15 billion of that money is not used. (6/29/04)

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held an oversight hearing on July 13th addressing the role of nuclear energy in national energy policy. The hearing focused on the recent court decision upholding the constitutionality of Yucca Mountain, funding for the project, and other nuclear research and development endeavors. Chairman Domenici (R-NM) led the discussion, emphasizing how nuclear power was necessary for the well-being of the country. He pointed out the fact that 20% of electric power in the US is produced by nuclear power plants, but no new plants have been authorized since 1973. He was hopeful, however, that nuclear power was on the verge of expansion, particularly once the Yucca Mountain repository is operational. The lone witness at the hearing was Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow from the Department of Energy (DOE), who offered an optimistic attitude toward the role nuclear power will play in national energy policy. He reported that the recent court decision will not prevent DOE from preparing a license application by the end of this year and he is confident the standards questioned by the court can be worked out without rewriting any laws. Senator Craig (R-ID) pointed out that both policy makers and the best scientists and engineers are unable to envision 300,000 years in the future, when radiation levels would meet safety standards, making the standards set by the EPA their best effort to apply the National Academy of Science's recommendations.

Joining Chairman Domenici was Ranking Member Bingaman (D-NM), Senator Craig (R-ID), Senator Alexander (R-TN), Senator Bayh (D-IN), and Senator Bunning (R-KY). All Committee members present praised the benefits of nuclear energy, which included cleaner air, energy independence, affordability, and reliability. Chairman Domenici was most concerned with the funding issues surrounding Yucca Mountain and expressed dismay at how funding for the repository has thus far been addressed. He stressed the need for the Committee to find funds for not only the Yucca Mountain project, but also nuclear research and development. Senator Bunning demanded more money be invested in research and development and McSlarrow responded by pointing out that, although receiving cuts from FY04, funding has increased from nothing in FY98 to $96 million in FY05, despite the tight budget across the board. McSlarrow, answering questions posed by Senator Alexander, outlined the progress of several DOE nuclear programs, including the Idaho National Laboratory, the Nuclear Power 2010 program, and Generation 4 technology. He also informed the Committee that DOE has received three proposals from industry so far who wish to invest in new nuclear power plants and technology, which, along with government subsidies, could increase the presence of nuclear energy in the US. (7/13/04)

On July 9th, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia released a ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the Yucca Mountain site selection process but also rejected the 10,000 year compliance period for limiting the release of radiation set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The court found that the EPA did not follow the guidance of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), who advised the EPA that this standard was not feasible and could not be applied to Yucca Mountain. In light of this decision, the court ordered the EPA to revise the standards to be consistent with NAS's recommendations on practical standards for radiation releases or obtain approval from Congress that would allow them to implement the current standards. The court case stemmed from the consolidation of several lawsuits filed by the state of Nevada and several environmental and public interest groups who claimed DOE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and Congress unlawfully chose the site for Yucca Mountain. Opponents of the Yucca Mountain project viewed the decision as a near-fatal blow to the project, claiming the process to change the standards would substantially delay the opening of the site. Proponents touted the ruling as a victory and believed changing the standards posed only a minor hurdle to opening the repository. (7/13/04)

The Department of Energy (DOE) held a media event July 19th to promote their plan to remove nuclear waste from the Savannah River site in South Carolina. Officials said that the waste holding tanks pose a threat to the local community, as 15 out of 51 steel tanks have had leaks. Containment systems have prevented radioactive material from contaminating groundwater, and there are currently no tanks known to be leaking. The DOE plans to remove most of the waste, with the remaining material requiring congressional reclassification to low-level waste through the 2005 Defense authorization bill. DOE attorney Lee Otis said at the event, "If this legislation fails, we're going to have to shut down our cleanup." Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) oppose the plan because some waste will be left in concrete-filled tanks, and they do not believe it should be reclassified. Karen Wayland of NRDC said that the DOE was "trying to do a snow job on the media." (7/26/04)

A three-judge panel from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) questioned the Department of Energy (DOE) on July 27th as to why the NRC has received fewer than half of the 1.2 million documents DOE is required to submit to the NRC before the end of the year. Nevada officials filed a legal challenge against DOE two weeks ago when the NRC announced that the internet database is missing some of the scientific documents pertaining to Yucca Mountain, which DOE is legally obligated to make available to the public. DOE said they submitted the documents June 30th to the Licensing Support Network, but the panel was struggling to understand why DOE waited so long to release the documents, considering they have been aware of this obligation for 15 years. DOE responded by saying they wanted to avoid wasting time collecting and validating the documents until Congress ratified the Yucca site, which happened in 2002. They also added that many of the missing documents are insignificant e-mails. The panel's decision, which is expected within the next few weeks, could delay DOE's licensing application of the site, which is due in December. (7/28/04)

Controversy over Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) testing standards of nuclear waste shipping casks flared up in August. NRC insists that its method of crashing the 150-ton containers at 75 miles per hour into a train and engulfing them in flames is adequate to determine the durability of the casks. Nevada officials are dissatisfied with the method, arguing that it is more of a demonstration than a scientific test. The safety of nuclear waste transportation is an important issue to Nevada, as the Bush Administration still plans to ship radioactive material to Yucca Mountain. (8/20/04)

As previously planned, the Department of Energy (DOE) confirmed that they expect to submit a license application by December to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) seeking approval for Yucca Mountain. This announcement came despite a court ruling in July challenging the validity of the 10,000 year safety limit for the release of radiation set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The court decision requires DOE to adjust the application to meet safety standards recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. According to the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, the state plans to use the courts to block the NRC from accepting the application. (8/20/04)

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository suffered a new setback on August 30th when a federal nuclear licensing panel ruled the Energy Department's repository document database is incomplete. The ruling, handed down by a three-member panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, said that when DOE certified its document database June 30th, it failed to satisfy NRC regulations by not making publicly available substantial quantities of documentary material already in the department's possession.

"Given the 15 years that DOE had to gather, review, and produce its documents and the fact that the date of production was within DOE's control, the significant gaps in the document production, and the incompleteness of its privilege review, it is clear to us that DOE did not meet its obligation, in good faith, to make all reasonable efforts to make all documentary materials available," the board said.

What this means for the Yucca Mountain timetable is unclear. DOE and nuclear industry officials say they are confident the department can complete its work on the additional materials in another month. For that reason, they say yesterday's decision should not be a major setback for the licensing process, which DOE had hoped to start by submitting its licensing application to NRC at the end of this year. Indeed, the board itself said its decision should not result in any material delays in the process. "It does not appear that it will take DOE a significant amount of time to complete its processing of the outstanding documents prior to being able to make a recertification," the board said in its ruling. But Nevada officials, whose challenge of the DOE document certification led to yesterday's ruling, are doubtful.

At issue in yesterday's decision is DOE's certification of what ultimately are expected to be more than 30 million pages of documents related to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project and their posting on a public Web site specifically created for their review. DOE certified 1.2 million documents comprising 5.6 million pages of material to NRC on June 30. That date is significant because DOE has planned to submit its Yucca Mountain repository licensing application on Dec. 30, and NRC regulations require the database to be certified and publicly available six months beforehand.

Nevada challenged the certification, saying the department's rushed job was incomplete. The significance of making the documents publicly available for six months is that it provides time for discovery so groups can use those documents during the formal NRC repository licensing process, which will be the largest proceeding in the agency's history. All other parties to the case were to have made their documents publicly available Sept. 28 -- a deadline now in question because of yesterday's ruling. (9/2/04)

Delegates to the Republican National Convention approved a platform plank on August 30th supporting the creation of a nuclear waste repository in Nevada, counter to the wishes of some Nevadans who oppose the Yucca Mountain facility. It says, "President Bush supports construction of new nuclear power plants through the Nuclear Power 2010 initiative and continues to move forward on creating an environmentally sound nuclear waste repository." I was approved by voice vote at the convention in New York City.

Greenwire reported that Bush administration officials defended the Republican Party's nuclear repository plank. "This is something you've heard the president address himself," said White House spokesman Ken Lisiaus. "And Spencer Abraham has also addressed it. [Bush] is strongly committed to making sure this moves forward on sound scientific principals and that the people of Nevada are safe."

According to an Associated Press survey touted by Erin Neff in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on August 31st, about 12 of the 33 Nevada delegates to the convention support the Yucca Mountain repository. Meanwhile, a Reno Gazette Journal poll showed Yucca Mountain will be an important issue for 53 percent of the state's voters. Greenwire has reported that both presidential candidates have campaigned extensively in the state, with Democratic nominee John Kerry's campaign running television advertisements touting his opposition to the facility and the Bush campaign countering with charges that he has changed his mind on the issue.

At the Democratic Party's nominating convention in Boston, delegates approved an official plank reading, "We will protect Nevada and its communities from the high level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, which has not proven to be safe by sound science." Greenwire reported on July 28th that the Yucca provision was the only one mentioning a specific state. (9/2/04)

Background

The use of deep geologic repositories as a means to isolate radioactive waste from the environment was recommended in 1957 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). According to the report, an ideal repository would be permanent, contain passive hydrologic and geochemical properties, be capable of safely storing the waste until it decays to nonhazardous levels, and contain a system of independent engineered barriers to enhance the geologic characteristics. As an ideal material for a geologic repository, NAS recommended a thick salt formation because salt is hard, flexible (allowing fractures to heal themselves), and indicates low water migration through an area.

The first federal policy to deal with spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste commenced in 1982 when Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). The act instructed the Department of Energy to develop two permanent storage repositories for radioactive waste produced by industry and government. One would be located in the western U.S., and the other in the eastern. Nine potential sites in six states were reduced to three sites in 1985, each composed of a different geologic material to isolate the waste -- Yucca Mountain, Nevada, composed of a volcanic welded tuff; Deaf Smith, Texas, composed of bedded salt; and the Hanford, Washington, weapons facility that is composed of basalt. Around the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that the minimum time a permanent nuclear waste repository should be capable of isolating waste was at least 10,000 years.

In 1987, the NWPA was amended to declare Yucca Mountain the only site to be considered for further study. Opposition to the Yucca Mountain site immediately surfaced with many citing concerns over the site's proximity to Las Vegas, transportation of waste to the site, potential seismic activity, and groundwater infiltration. The decision was especially unwelcome in Nevada, resulting in Senator Chic Hecht loosing his bid for re-election, and the Nevada State Legislature passing a bill making it illegal to store high-level nuclear waste within the state. The 1987 amendments to the NWPA mandated that the potential site at Yucca Mountain open in 1998, but opposition from politicians and technical difficulties have caused construction delays, moving the opening date to 2010.

Yucca Mountain will have to meet a series of standards to help ensure the safety of people living in the region, the environment, and national security. On June 6, 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency released its final public health and environmental radiation protection standards for Yucca Mountain. These standards set the levels of radiation exposure that are acceptable from groundwater, air, and soil in the areas surrounding the repository. The stringent standards would limit human exposure from all sources of radiation to less than 15 millirems (mrem) per year, with a separate groundwater standard of 4 mrem per year to be measured 11 miles from the site. The issue of security at Yucca Mountain gained increased attention after September 11, 2001. At a public hearing in Nevada shortly after the terrorist attacks, Diane D'Arrigo, the radioactive waste project director for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, referred to the Yucca Mountain repository as "a Disneyland for terrorists." Supporters, however, argue that storing all nuclear waste in one place could eliminate targets across the country.

On February 14, 2002, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham officially recommended to President Bush the Yucca Mountain site for a high-level nuclear waste repository. Abraham noted in his letter to Bush: "I have considered whether sound science supports the determination that the Yucca Mountain site is scientifically and technically suitable for the development of a repository. I am convinced that it does." The following day Bush made his official recommendation to Congress. One month before, Abraham notified Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn by letter of his intentions to recommend the Yucca Mountain site to Bush. In response to the recommendation, Guinn issued a lawsuit (one of many lawsuits that would soon follow) on behalf of the City of Las Vegas and Clark County against Bush, Abraham, and DOE. The lawsuit claims that the NWPA of 1982 was violated because the state did not receive the environmental impact statement for review prior to the recommendation. The State of Nevada is allotted 30 days to review the recommendation; however, the brisk presidential approval occurred only one day after Secretary Abraham's recommendation.

On April 8, 2002, Guinn submitted his Notice of Disapproval to Congress for the proposed Yucca Mountain waste site, arguing that the site selection is based on bad science and highlighting the dangers of nuclear waste transport from 130 temporary sites. One month later, on May 8th, the full House of Representatives voted 306-117 in favor of overriding the Governor's objection to the Yucca Mountain site selection. The Senate concurred on July 9th with a vote of 60-39. The Yucca Mountain project now moves into the licensing phase, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Sources: Department of Energy, E&E Daily, Environmental Protection Agency, Greenwire, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Library of Congress, National Academies, Nuclear Energy Institute, Salt Lake Tribune, Washington Post, House Subcommittee on Parks; hearing testimony; Associated Press; San Francisco Chronicle online; THOMAS legislative database; Las Vegas Review-Journal; American Minerologist.

Contributed by Charna Meth, 2003 AGI/AAPG Spring Semester Intern; Emily Scott, 2003 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; Emily M. Lehr, Government Affairs Program staff; Gayle Levy, 2004 AGI/AAPG Spring Semester Intern; Bridget Martin, 2004 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; Ashlee Dere, 2004 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern, and David R. Millar 2004 Fall Semester Intern

Background section includes material from AGI's High-level Nuclear Waste Legislation Update 107th Congress.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on December 10, 2004


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