Crescent Valley Residents Attend Yucca Mountain Hearing

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    Possible damage to natural resources, the threat of a terrorist attack targeting nuclear waste trains, and the lack of response to previous comments were all concerns expressed during the October 10th Yucca Mountain hearing in Crescent Valley. The Department of Energy (DOE) hurriedly organized the meeting so that residents of the area could comment on the upcoming Yucca Mountain site recommendation decision. But short notice by DOE resulted in sparse attendance at most rural hearings.

    During the afternoon impromptu question and answer session, DOE officials seemed unable to provide more than basic information about the geology of Yucca Mountain and the status of the site characterization project. To the frustration of those attending the hearing, the department’s representatives were also unprepared to address concerns about the proposed Carlin rail line, which may one day transport nuclear waste through the Crescent Valley. There were many questions but few adequate answers.

    Participants asked about the possibility of radioactive contamination caused by a transportation accident. Nancy Louden reminded the group of two train accidents that had taken place in the region in recent months. In response, Mark Van der Puy, director of DOE’s Office of Public Support, referred to a poster depicting the nuclear waste shipping casks surviving rigorous safety tests. But Christopher Sewell remained skeptical. Pointing out that the containers are not being subjected to a “worst-case scenario,” he questioned the conditions under which the casks are tested. “There are drops bigger than 30 feet, water deeper than three feet, and fires that could burn longer than 30 minutes,” Sewell said.

    The recent terrorist attacks of September 11th were also on peoples’ minds. Carrie Dann said she was “afraid that national defense will now be used as an excuse to push this project through.” Others also brought up the fear that trains transporting radioactive materials could be potential terrorist targets. Van der Puy admitted that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would now have to reconsider the possibility of a terrorist attack when evaluating cask safety.

    DOE official Mark Van der Puy explains how the hearing process worksAnother question that came up repeatedly was why DOE is not looking into other options for nuclear waste disposal, such as transmutation. According to Van der Puy, “The international community has concluded that geologic disposal is the most preferable method of disposal.” Sewell disagreed. “Geologic disposal is the best way to deal with [nuclear waste] so that we don’t have to deal with it, which will allow the nuclear power industry to keep producing more waste,” he said. Dann stressed the importance of research into other alternatives: “The United States should try to work to neutralize nuclear waste instead of bury it.” She worried that DOE’s present course gives “no consideration to the future generations.”

    In the testimonies that were officially recorded by the court reporter, worries about the potential damage to the county’s natural resources figured prominently. People were also concerned about the effect a nuclear waste rail line would have on their property values. Above all, participants worried about the health and safety of Nevada residents. Speaking of the lasting effects of atmospheric testing in Nevada, several Crescent Valley residents pointed out that DOE’s track record in issues of health and safety was not reassuring. “This obtrusive, poisonous, deadly stuff will be going by my house every day,” said Patti Leppala. “You don’t know how safe it is, but you’re going to say it’s safe anyway. My nephew [a downwinder] was supposed to be safe. But now he’s dead,” she said.

    Joseph Carruthers read a statement from Governor Kenny Guinn, which was being presented at each of the 29 field hearings. Guinn also brought up DOE’s previous violations of public trust. “I don’t have to remind anyone here today that it was not long ago that Nevadans and all Americans were assured that nuclear testing was safe,” the statement read. “Given the history, I trust you can understand why I view this proceeding as morally illegal if not technically so.”

    DOE poster showing the counties affected by the Yucca Mountain ProjectCommissioner Donna Bailey testified on behalf of Eureka County. She presented Eureka County’s Impact Assessment Report as part of her testimony, summarizing the main effects a rail line would have on the county. Bailey’s comments also focused on the lack of transportation analysis. “To decide to build a repository at Yucca Mountain, and not to decide how to get the waste to the repository is irresponsible,” she said. The Commissioner was also critical of the short notice given for the hearings, which were announced less than a week in advance.

    Commissioner Bailey formally requested that another meeting – this time a full hearing rather than a poorly publicized mini-hearing – be held in Crescent Valley after the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

    Another theme present in several testimonies was the failure of DOE to respond to any of the concerns raised by Crescent Valley residents at the hearings on the draft EIS two years ago. “We’ve attended these meetings before, and as near as I can tell, we have received no feedback on our comments,” said William Leppala. “It’s presumptuous to ask us to come back and say the same things as before when you haven’t responded,” he said.

    At the close of the meeting, Van der Puy assured the group that their concerns would eventually be addressed in a comment response document to be released to the public. Secretary Abraham is required by law to take public comments into account when making his final decision. The Secretary of Energy’s decision on whether to recommend Yucca Mountain to the president as a suitable site is expected before the end of the year.

    Eureka County Releases Impact Assessment Report

    Public/private property in Eureka County. Click to enlargeOne of the main focuses of Eureka County’s nuclear waste oversight program this year was the preparation of an Impact Assessment Report on the proposed shipments of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste through the county. Released in August, the purpose of the report is to identify and quantify potential impacts to the county of the construction of a rail line for the transportation of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. Currently the only site under consideration for a permanent geologic repository, Yucca Mountain may be the future home of over 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste. The report provides present and future county commissioners with basic information on how the construction of a rail line in Crescent Valley could affect areas such as grazing, wildlife, flood control, and the county’s economy.

    The “Carlin” route is one of five rail routes being considered by the Department of Energy (DOE). The decision on whether rail or truck will be the predominant mode of transportation has not been made, and the final routes have not yet been selected. If finally designated as a nuclear waste transportation route, the Carlin rail line would originate at the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Beowawe and pass through the center of the Crescent Valley. The rail line would take at least two and a half years to construct with and require about 500 workers. The shipping campaign would last for at least 38 years and would involve the movement of over 40,000 shipments of nuclear waste.

    Among the many concerns associated with the proposed rail route is the potential for accidents. The report points to the numerous serious railroad accidents that have taken place on the existing tracks in Eureka County and elsewhere in the United States. Although a severe accident is unlikely, there is a possibility that radioactive materials could be released into the environment in even the most minor of derailments. The report explores the probability of such an accident and analyzes the impacts.

    According to the report, the construction and operation of a rail line would affect the county’s natural resources. A rail line would reduce wildlife habitat and create barriers to wildlife movement. Habitats for mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and sage grouse are among those that would be disrupted. Extensive land disturbances would be required, especially given the shallow depth of the Valley’s water table, which would limit the depth of excavation. Two grazing allotments in Crescent Valley would also be affected.

    The human environment in the proposed rail corridor would also be impacted. The rail line would pass through Western Shoshone territory, creating concern for traditional lands, archeological sites, and burial grounds. The report also outlines the possible effects a rail line would have on historic sites such as Maiden’s Grave, Gravelly Ford, and the California trail.

    Economic sectors including mining, government, tourism, recreation, agriculture, and retail business would also be affected by construction and operation. The proposed corridor could include nearly 59 percent private land, a large part of which would be converted to public use. This conversion, which is contrary to Eureka County’s policy of encouraging the transfer of public land to private ownership, would have adverse impacts on the county’s tax base and economy. Almost 60 percent of the private parcels of land in the county are within 10 miles of the rail corridor. According to the Impact Assessment Report, property values of land located near a rail line would fall, even in the absence of an accident.

    One of the greatest concerns of Eureka County is the health and safety of its residents. Even without any accidents, the shipping casks for nuclear waste would still emit radiation and some latent cancer fatalities would likely occur among transportation workers and the public. If there were an accident, according to DOE, the worst-case scenario would entail at least 31 latent cancer fatalities among the exposed population. A severe accident would also have numerous other impacts such as the contamination of the Humboldt River or the Crescent Valley aquifer; wildfire; soil contamination; spread of noxious weeds; permanent loss of range resources and wildlife habitat; damage to scenic resources; distress sales of private property; damage to county infrastructure; and severe and long-lasting economic impacts.

    The Impact Assessment Report also includes a discussion of the measures required to mitigate the impacts detailed in the report. According to the report, mitigation measures must involve rigorous monitoring and follow-up, during both construction and operations of a rail route to minimize the potential impacts on human health and the environment. The county’s emergency response capabilities would need to be enhanced. State and local authorities would most likely oversee all monitoring efforts, but DOE must pay all monitoring costs.

    The report was prepared by the county’s consultant Abby Johnson, who tapped the expertise of a rural economist, an engineer with knowledge of emergency management and rail construction, a natural resource specialist, and a researcher to complete the report. The maps were prepared by Michael Mears of the Eureka County Assessor’s Office using GIS technology.

    For a copy of the report, contact the Eureka County public works office in Eureka at 775-237-5372 or in Crescent Valley at 775-468-0326. Click here to view the full report online.

    Public Hearing on Yucca Mountain Held in Las Vegas

    Some Las Vegas residents watched the hearing in a nearby cafeteriaEmotions ran high at the September 5th Las Vegas public meeting, the first of three scheduled Yucca Mountain hearings in southern Nevada. The hearing was intended to give members of the public an opportunity to comment on the Department of Energy's (DOE) possible recommendation of Yucca Mountain as a suitable site for a nuclear waste repository. However, many came away from the first meeting discouraged and frustrated, complaining of the failure of the hearing to give participants an adequate forum to voice their concerns.

    Hundreds of people crowded into DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration's meeting room. The hearing had been scheduled for the Suncoast Hotel and Casino, but was moved due to security concerns. The standing room only crowd of Nevadans who had turned out to participate in the public review process spilled into the hallway and an adjacent cafeteria where people watched the proceedings on television. People in Carson City, Elko, and Reno also participated in the hearing via closed-circuit television. Nearly 500 people gathered to respond to DOE's latest scientific report, the Preliminary Site Suitability Evaluation (PSSE), which found no major obstacles to making Yucca Mountain a permanent repository for over 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste.

    Nevada Governor Kenny GuinnThe first speaker of the night was Governor Kenny Guinn. Pointing to the unfairness of the hearing process, Guinn criticized DOE for holding the hearings before the release of the final Environmental Impact Statement. “Public comment in the absence of this all-important evidence is premature and grossly irresponsible,” Guinn said. “We demand fairness, and we demand accountability in this process. We will not sit idly by and let the Department of Energy run roughshod over our citizens with empty promises and bad science.” The Nevada governor vowed to take his complaints to Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and President Bush.

    Guinn's testimony was followed by comments from Nevada's congressional delegation, who testified from Washington via a video link. They expressed their disappointment over both the hearing process and the absence of Secretary Abraham who, despite formal requests from the delegation, did not attend the meeting.

    Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev., criticized DOE for not publicizing plans for nuclear waste transportation before going ahead with the site recommendation process. “They won't tell us which railways and highways this poison will be transported on because it will be going by houses and schools. They have to have an environmental impact study for that, and I don't think they can do it,” Reid said.

    Senator John Ensign, R-Nev., advocated more research into less dangerous solutions to the problem of nuclear waste. He urged DOE to consider storing the waste onsite at reactor facilities while scientists pursue different alternatives to permanent geologic burial. “We have to look at new technology for recycling this waste,” Ensign said, calling the estimated $60 billion Yucca Mountain project “the most expensive construction project in the history of this world.”

    Representative Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., called the proposed repository “misguided and irresponsible” policy. “The bottom line is, whether it's five years, 50 years or 40,000 years, disaster is a real possibility in this project,” he said.

    Representative Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., found the Preliminary Site Suitability Evaluation to be “implausibly optimistic.” Berkley urged DOE to accept that the site and the project are fundamentally flawed. “As a country, we must stop trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Instead of trying to change the rules and dance around the law, we should immediately begin the decommissioning of the Yucca Mountain Project,” she said.

    About 130 people signed up to testify, many after they had arrived. The speakers who took the podium first had pre-registered via a 1-800 number that was not advertised in the newspapers. The hearing room was packed and tense, as citizens both opposed to and in favor of the repository project took the podium to voice their concerns. While the vast majority of the crowd had turned out to criticize the proposed repository, six of the first nine speakers were in favor of DOE’s Yucca Mountain project.

    One proponent of the proposed repository was Gary Sandquist, a professor at the University of Utah. He attended the meeting on a request from the Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobbying group for the nuclear power industry. “Are you willing to give up 20% of your electricity?” Sandquist asked the audience. He said that nuclear waste is a consequence of nuclear energy, which provides one-fifth of the nation's power. “Let's be practical. We've got the waste; we've got to put it somewhere.”

    His testimony was interrupted several times by hecklers in the crowd. At one point, the moderator threatened to end the hearing unless the crowd quieted down and allowed the pro-nuclear professor to finish his statement.

    Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman was among those who turned out to criticize the repository project. He threatened to arrest anyone who attempts to haul nuclear waste through the city of Las Vegas. “Don't dare me because I'll be out there to make the arrest myself, and let's see that truck driver try to get out of jail in my city.”

    Crescent Valley resident Joseph Carruthers testified from ElkoRepresentatives of the Western Shoshone and Paiute tribes also attended the meeting. They voiced concerns over the DOE's ability to fairly evaluate the suitability of Yucca Mountain. John Wells, a spokesman for the Western Shoshone National Council, said “our unfortunate experience as downwind victims informs our policy against the proposed high level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain no matter how much has been spent. We believe that the DOE does not want to know the truth,” Wells said. “For the DOE, their truth is from an origin in a culture of secrecy.”

    The hearing ended around 2:00 a.m., after more than 8 hours of testimony. Many people who had signed up to speak grew tired and disillusioned, leaving before they had a chance to express their concerns. Others gave their statements to a court reporter, who was taking down official testimonies in a separate room. By 10:00 p.m. nearly 100 people had grown impatient and left.

    Responding to the widespread criticism of the meeting, Secretary Abraham announced the expansion of the public comment process. The dates and times of 29 additional hastily-scheduled meetings appeared in a statement released September 28. The hearings, including two in Crescent Valley, were held in all Nevada counties as well as Inyo County in California. However, last minute location changes, insufficient publicity, and hurried planning led to poor attendance at most field hearings.

    The two other originally planned southern Nevada meetings were delayed after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The Amargosa Valley and Pahrump hearings were rescheduled for October 10 and 12, respectively. Those who attended voiced many of the same concerns as Las Vegas residents had at the first site recommendation hearing. However, people commenting at post-Sept. 11 hearings expressed much more concern over the possibility of a terrorist attack targeting a repository and the trains and trucks transporting waste to it.

    Secretary Abraham must consider public comments before making his recommendation to the president. In a letter to Senator Reid, Abraham expressed his commitment to this process: “Any decision on the possible recommendation of the Yucca Mountain site will be reached in accordance with all applicable laws, will be based on sound science and technology, and will consider the views expressed by the state of Nevada, the public and other interested entities.” Many Nevada residents, however, came away from the hearings doubting whether DOE really intends to give their comments due consideration.

    Who Foots the Bill in the Event of a Nuclear Accident?
    The Price-Anderson Act comes up for renewal

    Currently up for reauthorization in Congress, the Price-Anderson Act was first passed in 1957 as an amendment to the 1954 Atomic Energy Act. Originally enacted to help an infant industry get off the ground, the purpose of the act is to protect the nuclear industry from a potential accident liability so large that it would threaten the future of nuclear power, and to ensure that the public would be compensated for any damage resulting from a nuclear accident. The act was amended in 1998 to bring the nuclear-related activities of the Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractors under the same liability coverage – meaning that any accident occurring during the transportation and storage of nuclear waste would also be covered under the Price-Anderson Act.

    Under the act’s “no-fault” liability system, the amount nuclear power utilities must pay in the event of a catastrophic reactor accident is capped. Reactor owners must obtain $200 million in liability coverage from a private insurance company. If an accident were to exceed $200 million in damages, each of the country’s 103 reactor operators must pay up to $88 million per reactor. Therefore, privately financed insurance would cover a total of $9.3 billion in damages. In exchange for this limit on financial liability, in the event of an “extraordinary nuclear occurrence,” nuclear utilities must waive legal defenses against paying claims. This is intended to relieve victims of the necessity of proving negligence.

    In the event of an “extraordinary” accident involving DOE contractors, as would be the case with nuclear waste transportation, an indemnity agreement would be arranged. This means that the contractors would not be held liable – even if proven so in a court of law – and the government would pay all damages incurred up to the commercial reactor liability limit. In both cases, whether the accident involved a nuclear power utility or a DOE contractor, if the damage costs exceeded the $9.3 billion liability limit, it would be up to Congress to enact legislation to provide full compensation to the public.

    However, critics of the Price-Anderson Act question whether the coverage it provides is adequate. A 1982 Nuclear Regulatory Commission study found that a severe nuclear accident could cost as much as $560 billion in today’s dollars. The $9.3 billion provided by the industry would therefore cover less than two percent of the damages incurred in such an accident, leaving the industry largely immune while the government foots the vast majority of the bill. “The nuclear industry is the only industry in America that is absolved of any guilt or liability for any accident, even if it is their own fault,” said Representative Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.

    In light of the September 11 terrorist attacks, some consumer and environmental groups are calling for a thorough reassessment of nuclear security before Price-Anderson is reauthorized. The act has also been criticized for precluding victims of a nuclear accident from directly suing those companies responsible. Yet another concern is that by absolving DOE contractors of accountability, the indemnification clause of the act discourages safe and conscientious handling of nuclear materials.

    The House Energy and Commerce Committee has approved a 15-year renewal of the Price-Anderson Act, H.R. 2983. The bill will be voted on in the full House sometime this month. If the bill does not pass, the act will expire in 2002.

    In Brief . . . . Recent Nuclear News

    NRC approves new siting guidelines for Yucca Mountain . . . On September 24, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) endorsed the changes DOE plans to make to the Yucca Mountain guidelines. The NRC's concurrence was needed for DOE to finalize the site guidelines and move forward in the recommendation process. Critics say that instead of relying on the mountain’s geologic features to contain radiation, the revised guidelines put too much emphasis on the ability of the storage containers and other “engineered barriers” to contain the waste. Critics say this shift in policy is inconsistent with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and will make it easier for Yucca Mountain to be found suitable. “We are complying with the law,” countered Yucca Mountain Project spokesman Allen Benson. “The law expects us from time to time to update the siting guidelines as we learn more as we go along.” (LV Review-Journal, 10/26/01)

    House panel examines increased security for nuclear waste . . . The House Energy and Commerce Committee has approved legislation that urges the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop new rules requiring armed escorts for all shipments of spent fuel. The bill requires security inspections to take place at a nuclear waste repository, among other facilities, at least once every two years. If passed, the bill would also expand the law on sabotage involving nuclear materials to cover acts committed at a nuclear waste repository, such as the one proposed for Yucca Mountain, nuclear waste treatment plants, and fuel enrichment facilities. (LV Review-Journal, 10/4/01)

    DOE asks Congress for lump-sum funding . . . In a move criticized by Nevada lawmakers, the Department of Energy requested that Congress consider paying for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository in one lump sum rather than doling out smaller amounts in annual budgets. The possibility of lump-sum funding was unveiled in a DOE report requested by the House Appropriations subcommittee, which is seeking proposals for a Yucca payment plan. Nevada lawmakers have questioned where the estimated $58 billion would come from. “That’s going to take an enormous amount of money away from other programs – it will take money from education, from health care, from defense,” said Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev. (LV Sun, 9/28/01)

    Scientists tout method for reprocessing nuclear wastes . . . DOE scientists at Argonne National Laboratory-West have come up with the first laboratory-scale process to “transmute” radioactive waste into something that can be stored safely or recycled. Called pyroprocessing, the process has the potential to “reduce waste streams and enhance proliferation resistance.” Environmental groups still worry that reprocessing could speed up nuclear proliferation and some DOE officials question the economics of such an expensive project. According to one estimate, initial research into pyroprocessing could cost hundreds of millions of dollars in the next decade. The Bush administration supports the idea as a way to prolong the life of the nuclear power industry. (Wall Street Journal, 8/21/01)

    DOE looks into possible Yucca Mountain terrorist attack . . . The September 11 terrorist attacks have prompted DOE to re-evaluate the threat of a plane crash at the proposed nuclear waste repository. One DOE engineer said that scientists have yet not analyzed a scenario involving an aircraft crashing into an aboveground building where spent nuclear fuel rods would be repackaged before placement inside the mountain. Once the waste is entombed 1,000 feet underground, a plane crash is expected to have little effect. DOE had previously considered the possibility of such an attack so remote that analyzing the consequences was not necessary. But in light of recent events, “we need to evaluate what, if anything, additional needs to be done,” said the Energy Department spokesman. (Associated Press, 9/27/01)

    Fighter jet goes down near Death Valley . . . A Navy pilot ejected safely from a fighter-attack jet that crashed northwest of Pahrump on October 23, according to a Nellis Air Force Base spokesman. Part of an aerial combat training exercise, the F/A-18C Hornet was carrying two live 500-pound bombs, both destroyed in the fireball that ensued after the crash. The cause of the crash is still unclear, but initial reports point to aircraft failure. At the time of the crash, the Navy planes were about 25 miles southwest of Yucca Mountain. Critics of the proposed repository have argued that 20,000 military flights a year over the area is reason enough to warrant concern for the possibility of a catastrophic accident involving nuclear waste. (LV Review-Journal, 10/24/01)

    State Releases Yucca Mountain Video

    The State of Nevada's Nuclear Waste Project Office has recently released a video about the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain. Through animated graphics, the video demonstrates how the Department of Energy (DOE) believes the Yucca Mountain system will function. Because water is Athe vehicle by which radiation can and eventually will escape from the repository,@ the video concentrates mainly on the cycle of water flow through the geologic formations of the region. The graphics depict the movement of water from original surface precipitation and downward migration through Yucca Mountain=s volcanic tuff, to the eventual breach of the engineered barriers in the repository and release of radioactive material into the water table.

    DOE has predicted that the engineered barriers will remain intact for at least 10,000 years, the minimum federal standard for isolation of waste. However, research conducted by the State of Nevada has shown that radiation could escape much sooner. According to the state, the titanium drip shields and nickel-alloy waste canisters may be breached in as little as 1,000 years. The video depicts the eventual contamination of the water table which lies below the repository, pointing out that once the waste reaches the aquifer, radioactive particles will be found in wells in the area.

    To obtain a copy of the video, contact the State of Nevada's Nuclear Waste Project Office at 1-800-366-0990. Their web address is

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