Nov. 22, 2004 – A court decision requiring a planned nuclear waste repository to meet strict environmental standards will remain in place, despite what some say was a White House-sponsored backdoor effort to overturn science-based guidelines.
Until the last minute, rumors swirled among activists and government professionals about a rider to be attached to the routine appropriations bill before the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. If adopted, it would have paved the way for a controversial national nuclear waste repository to be built at Yucca Mountain, an extinct volcano on Native American land in Nye County, Nevada.
But the planned rider never emerged, leading both environmental activists and Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) to claim victory. And on Monday, officials from the United States Department of Energy (DoE) announced another delay to the embattled project, underscoring the major setback that the court decision represents for the Yucca Mountain site.
This summer, the US District Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit found that the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s radiation standards were overly lax and ordered the federal agency to comply with tougher standards endorsed by a group of scientists. In its decision, the court admonished the EPA for "unabashedly reject[ing]" scientistsâ€™ views on the issue.
If the DoE is unable to prove that the Yucca facilityâ€™s design will meet legal standards, then the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission will not grant it a license. An emerging consensus among experts in the field holds that it will be nearly impossible to license Yucca Mountain with the current court decision in place.
Anti-nuclear activists say that while the industry views the creation of a national nuclear repository as essential, such a site will not fix the overarching mess created by nuclear waste.
Unless the decision is legislatively overturned, "itâ€™s highly unlikely Yucca Mountain could ever be licensed," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Research Service, a national networking center for citizens and environmental activists concerned about nuclear power and other energy issues. "We donâ€™t see how they possibly could design Yucca to meet the tougher standards."
In part because of nuclear waste's potentially catastrophic health and environmental consequences, the Yucca Mountain project has long been a lightning rod for criticism. Opponents charge that moving spent nuclear fuel along railways to the remote site risks transportation accidents or terrorism-related theft, that the mountain would not sufficiently protect surrounding lands from radiation leakage, and that storing nuclear material here risks spreading unintended contamination through degradation of waste storage containers or events like earthquakes. Additionally, the site rests on the sacred land of the Western Shoshone people -- land that tribal representatives still claim under the Treaty of Ruby Valley.
The most recent battle began when the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a non-profit organization of scholars, produced a report advising long-term safety measures, contending that protections must be implemented that would guard against massive radiation doses for hundreds of thousands of years.
Though the EPA is required by law to incorporate the NASâ€™s Yucca Mountain recommendations, the Agency ignored the scholarsâ€™ advisory. Instead, the EPA proposed a 10,000-year standard -- a number that, Mariotte said, appeared "out of a hat." If the DoE can meet that standard, he adds, "they consider it good enough for government work."
The courts, however, did not, and told the federal environmental agency to come back with a more protective radiation standard that incorporated scientific insights.
The more stringent standards, say environmentalists, are critical to preserving public health over the long term, and Yucca Mountain canâ€™t meet the scientistsâ€™ criteria because of inherent problems with the plan.
"The site is inadequate," said Brendan Hoffman, an organizer on nuclear energy and nuclear waste issues with Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization and one of the groups that successfully sued the EPA over the agencyâ€™s 10,000-year standard.
While some might question the tracking of effects so far into the future, Hoffman says that the timeframe issue pales in comparison to the potential impact on those living downstream from a nuclear repository in coming years.
"Thereâ€™s no reason to set an expiration date on the safety of this repository," he said. "If the site were suitable, we wouldnâ€™t be having this discussion."
Though sources within the office of Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) insist that support for the rider came from on high, the White House has denied pushing the amendment, and Tessa Hafen, press secretary for Senator Reid, said Reid and Domenici reached an agreement last week that such language would not be in the bill.
President Bush promised Nevadans during the last campaign that he would not challenge the court decision, and his administration has repeated that pledge.
Asked if Senator Reid, now the Democratsâ€™ floor leader, believes the president, Hafen paused and said, "Senator Reid hopes President Bush sticks to his word."
Activists are less circumspect. "I wouldnâ€™t put anything past the Bush administration," offers Hoffman.
Even if the White Houseâ€™s denial is strictly true, observers say, there is no shortage of surrogates with an interest in overturning the ruling.
"Itâ€™s a priority for the nuclear industry to get this court decision overturned," said Michelle Boyd, legislative director for Public Citizen. And with numerous members of Congress accepting money from energy companies, many legislators seem set to back that policy as well.
Since US nuclear facilities do not currently have adequate on-site storage for waste, moving quickly toward a national repository would mean that energy companies donâ€™t have to take on added expense of additional on-site storage. Plus, a policy that purported to solve the nationâ€™s nuclear waste problem could be a significant public relations boost. This, environmentalists say, is part of the rush toward finding a catch-all site for nuclear waste.
Anti-nuclear activists say that while the industry views the creation of a national nuclear repository as essential, such a site will not fix the overarching mess created by nuclear waste. "Yucca Mountain won't solve any future waste problems -- at best, it will attempt to address problems we already have," said Hoffman.
The rush to certify Yucca Mountain hit another bump in the road on November 22 when, at a meeting with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Energy Department announced that it would not seek a license application in December as previously planned.
While this is "largely due" to the court decision, said Boyd, it also stems from numerous technical and design issues that remain unresolved. DoE and the nuclear regulators have yet to agree on such hot-button topics as corrosion of waste storage casks and volcanic activity in the surrounding areas. Energy Department officials hope to announce a revised timetable at their next meeting with the regulatory authority in three months.
To Mariotte, the difficulty faced by the Yucca facilityâ€™s proponents of meeting the court-enforced standards all but guarantees another legislative attempt to overrule the court is almost a given.
"We fully expect to have to fight this again next year," he said.