Oct. 2, 2006 – Critics of congressional proposals to address the mounting problem of storing radioactive nuclear waste say lawmakers are ignoring science and jeopardizing public health and safety by proposing to push nuclear waste onto a controversial Nevada site that remains far from approval.
Before Congress adjourned last week, Senator Pete Domenici (Râ€“New Mexico) introduced the "Nuclear Waste Acceleration to Yucca" bill, which would permit disposal of nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain as early as 2010.
Critics see Domeniciâ€™s move as an attempt to skirt the established process for waste-storage approval, which they have managed to stall, citing environmental and safety concerns. "[I]t is not a site that can be licensed given reasonable standards for health and public safety," said Michele Boyd, legislative counsel with Public Citizen.
Domeniciâ€™s bill, co-sponsored by Senator Larry Craig (Râ€“Idaho), would also amend the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act â€“ the bill requiring the US government to start disposing of waste by 1998 â€“ to eliminate the cap on the amount of waste that can be stored at Yucca Mountain. Currently, the statutory limit is 70,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste for the first permanent nuclear storage facility built in the United States.
According to the Department of Energy (DOE), 53,440 metric tons of reactor and "defense-related" radioactive waste is currently awaiting a permanent storage solution. The agency estimates that amount will rise to 119,000 metric tons by 2035.
Domeniciâ€™s bill would also eliminate the cap on the amount of waste that can be stored at Yucca Mountain.
Another provision in the bill would permit the DOE to move spent fuel to Yucca Mountain and begin construction on the waste facility before the site is licensed as a permanent repository by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
"This bill does all these things to put pressure on opening up Yucca Mountain when the basic science of the program is really questionable," Boyd told The NewStandard.
The Yucca Mountain site has been mired in controversy since Congress approved it in 2002. Critics have questioned the governmentâ€™s scientific analysis of the site after the DOE released official e-mails suggesting US Geological Survey scientists were falsifying and manipulating data to move the project forward. Last December, the Department suspended some of the safety and engineering work contractor Bechtel was conducting on the site after whistleblowers revealed the company was engaging in questionable scientific analysis.
Domenici, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is also under fire for a provision he attached to the FY 2007 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill that would create interim storage sites, also called Consolidation and Preparation (CAP) facilities, for nuclear waste in dozens of states.
A coalition of ten state attorneys general sent a letter to Domenici and co-sponsor Harry Reid (Dâ€“Nevada), lambasting the proposal. Their missive said the bill would give the DOE "fast-tracked" and "unchecked power" to stick their states with unwanted waste sites. A TNS analysis of the provision confirms it would authorize the DOE to designate sites for storage of nuclear waste in each of the 31 states that house nuclear reactors "in consultation with" state governors.
According the DOE, 53,440 metric tons of reactor and "defense-related" radioactive waste is currently awaiting a permanent storage solution. The agency estimates that amount will rise to 119,000 metric tons by 2035.
Senator Reid, an opponent of the Yucca Mountain site, is supporting Domeniciâ€™s interim storage site proposal as a way to keep the waste out of Nevada.
Ann Alexander, environmental counsel to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said the provision is unclear about statesâ€™ prerogative to influence such plans. Madigan told TNS that the billâ€™s "silence" on the topic of statesâ€™ sovereignty constitutes its "real danger." She noted that the legislation empowers the DOE to choose federal or purchased property and establish a site.
Alexander said the provision could trump residential zoning laws or state environmental regulations.
"If there were some endangered or threatened species, itâ€™s not all clear under this law that the restrictions that would apply when such a species is present on a site would in any way prevent construction" of a waste site," she said.
Alexander said they do not take a position on sending waste to Yucca Mountain "except to say that the law does require that a long-term repository be found" by the federal government.
State leaders also criticize the short timetable for choosing interim sites â€“ only nine months â€“ and the unaddressed dangers of transporting radioactive waste, including accidents and the potential for terrorist attacks.
"The proposal would, given its truncated time frame, effectively require that shipments commence before any of these issues are sufficiently evaluated," wrote the Attorneys General. "The proposal does not contain even basic measures to address the major transportation-safety issues entailed in moving nuclear waste, such as emergency-response preparation, accident prevention, security and public education."
"These principles for safeguarding nuclear waste â€¦ are not a permanent solution for the waste," said Boyd. "But what we are saying is itâ€™s addressing the real problem, and the real problem is security."
Critics also accuse Domenici of hindering public debate about the controversial proposal by attaching it to an appropriations bill that offers no opportunity for public hearings or input.
Public-interest groups also suggest the push for interim storage and to move waste quickly to Yucca Mountain is driven by the nuclear power industry. They argue that if the government creates a "solution" for the industryâ€™s waste, companies can speed up the licensing process for new nuclear-power plants. Congress and the Bush Administration, a strong proponent of nuclear power, have authorized billions of dollars in subsidies for the nuclear industry in recent energy appropriations bills.
But without a long-term solution for disposing of nuclear waste, groups say, the government should not be facilitating the generation of more nuclear waste. Boyd with Public Citizen, an organization that advocates for the phase-out of nuclear power, says right now the focus should be on protecting the public from the health, safety and security threats posed by storage of nuclear waste at current sites.
Boyd said the investigations and audits following the allegedly flawed and manipulated data from government scientists and contractors has prolonged finding a long-term solution, adding that the decision to establish Yucca Mountain as a repository was a "political decision, not a scientific one."
"These principles for safeguarding nuclear wasteâ€¦ are not a permanent solution for the waste," said Boyd. "But what we are saying is itâ€™s addressing the real problem, and the real problem is security."
Public Citizen and more than 100 public-interest and environmental groups are advocating for "hardened, on-site storage," or HOSS, at current reactors, in which waste is stored in highly reinforced dry casks. The coalition presented a proposal to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality last month that calls for better protection and placement for pools of spent nuclear fuel, more funding to monitor and review sites and a prohibition against reprocessing nuclear waste.
Though no states have yet endorsed HOSS, several members of Congress have voiced their support of this method of storing waste, which advocates say is the best way to secure the radioactive material against accidents and attacks. Congress members Edward Markey (Dâ€“Massachusetts), Maurice Hinchey (Dâ€“New York) and Eliot Engel (Dâ€“New York) are urging Congress and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue mandates requiring HOSS at the 103 reactor sites across the country.