Congressional Update: Proposed Legislation Affecting Yucca Mountain
Several bills affecting the Yucca Mountain Project and nuclear waste transportation are currently being debated in Congress.
Whistleblower Protection law — Nevada Senators Harry Reid and John Ensign added an amendment to an energy bill that strengthens whistleblower protection for Energy Department (DOE) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) employees. The two senators were motivated to introduce the legislation after two DOE Yucca Mountain staff who had agreed testify at a hearing about problems in the project backed out at the last minute. Reid and Ensign, who organized the Whistleblower Protection law hearing, feared that the employees had been intimidated by DOE, though the Department denies any wrongdoing.
Under current law, only contractors with DOE are covered by whistleblower protection laws. At the NRC, only employees of a licensee of the Commission
are covered, but neither NRC employees nor NRC contractors fall under the protection. Reid and Ensign’s new legislation will ensure that all DOE and NRC federal employees and contractors are covered. The amendment has been passed in both the House and the Senate and is expected to be signed into law with the final bill.
Water and Energy Appropriations Bill — Also debated in Congress this summer were two different versions of the spending bill that provides funding to DOE for the Yucca Mountain Project. The House’s bill, passed with a 377-26 vote, contains a record $765 million for Yucca in the 2004 fiscal year. President Bush only asked for $591 million, but House leaders felt a larger budget would help the project get
back on schedule.
The bill includes a provision directing DOE to select a central Nevada rail corridor for waste shipment within sixty days of the bill’s signing, formalize it as the preferred route by June 30, 2005, and have it ready for construction by 2007. The bill instructs DOE to eliminate two rail options that would ship nuclear waste through Clark County.
House Republicans also wanted to include a provision providing for early nuclear waste storage at the site, but Nevada Representatives Jim Gibbons and Jon Porter managed to convince House leaders to drop this part of the
bill. The House bill additionally includes a $30 million ‘enticement’ sum to Nevada, entitled “local impact assistance,” to mitigate the economic and environmental effects of the nuclear waste repository. Critics, however,
say the sum is misleading and inadequate to cover public emergency planning.
Defense Authorization Bill Provision: Yucca Secrecy — The Department of Energy (DOE) requested legislation in Congress that would
tighten secrecy on the Yucca Mountain Project. House Republicans inserted
such a provision into a House defense authorization bill. The provision would increase DOE control over unclassified security-related aspects of nuclear waste storage facilities.
Yucca opponents are afraid DOE could use the new authorization to restrict disclosure about nuclear waste transportation routes or about possible aircraft crash threats to the Yucca Mountain facility. The Department maintains that these fears are unwarranted, but Nevada lawmakers remain concerned.
In a letter to the House Armed Services Committee leaders, Nevada Reps Berkley, Gibbons, and Porter said the provision “gives the Department of Energy the authority to shut the American public out of the Yucca Mountain Project process.” The provision was passed with the defense bill in the
House on May 21. It will go to a conference committee with the Senate sometime this fall.
Anti-terrorist Waste Transportation Bill — In July, Nevada Representative Shelly Berkley (D) reintroduced a bill in the House that would require the government to develop an extensive anti-terrorist plan
before applying for a license to build and run the Yucca Mountain storage facility. The bill, co-sponsored by Gibbons and Porter, is designed
to ensure maximum security of nuclear waste transportation and storage.
It would set up many complicated requirements that Berkley hopes would force DOE to delay construction of the repository. Among the requirements: The Dept of Homeland Security would have to initiate counter-terrorist plans on federal, state and local levels. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would be required to prepare a coordinated emergency response strategy.
Berkley first introduced the anti-terrorist bill to the House in October 2001, but it was killed in a conference committee. Although this new version is also likely to fail, Berkley intends to provoke discussion about the issue.
Yucca Mountain Lawsuits Court Date Postponed
Nevada’s major Yucca Mountain lawsuits were set to to federal court this fall, but now they may not be heard until sometime in 2004. In August, the U.S. Court Appeals in Washington, D.C. moved the consolidated cases to its 'complex' calendar and postponed the previous October 3rd court date.
The new ‘complex’ designation reflects the complicated nature of the combined cases. It also means the State of Nevada will have several hours argue its case instead of the standard 15 minutes. Oral arguments will be heard by a 3-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals. The procedure will be open to the public. The suits, filed over the past two years, argue that several agencies, including the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission violated the law throughout the Yucca Mountain site characterization and recommendation process.
The state asks the court to declare President Bush’s designation of
Yucca Mountain invalid. The state also asks that construction of the repository be barred pending the outcome of the cases. Last November, the D.C. Court agreed to hear all the major cases together. This will
allow the 3-judge panel to get the full picture, hearing all of Nevada's
major cases in a relatively short period of time, rather than splitting up the suits between panels or having the cases spread out over months.
Then, in January 2003, Nevada filed another major lawsuit against the Yucca
Mountain Project. The suit is a constitutional challenge against the federal government. It argues that by forcing the state to house nuclear
waste against its will, the federal government is violating the State of Nevada's sovereign rights. In March, the federal court in D.C. decided the case would be heard with the others.
The court hearings are expected to take place sometime in late 2003 or 2004. Once they have concluded, the judges will most likely take several months to make a decision. The decision could be multifaceted and could include the remanding or striking of actions. For example, the judges could order the DOE to re-do parts of the Yucca Mountain Environmental Impact Statement. Both sides are expected to appeal to the Supreme
New Additions to Eureka County’s Yucca Mountain Website!
- Licensing – we’ve created a new center all about the
Yucca Mountain Licensing Process, including information
about Nuclear Regulatory Commission license
criteria, public participation in the process, and the
licensing schedule. Click on the license button on the
homepage to find out more.
- Archives – we’ve put together an archives center of
all of the older information on yuccamountain.org.
Click on the archives button for easier access to less
recent news, newsletters, legislation & litigation info.
- Search – we’ve added a search function to the site!
Type in your query and let it do the searching for you.
- Transportation – we’ve updated our nuclear waste
transportation page with new transportation-related
news, links, and current information about the Price-
- Litigation – the lawsuits center has been updated to
reflect all current case information, news articles, and
downloadable briefs filed by the Nevada legal team
against the Yucca Mountain repository.
- Other – additional pages with updated information
include: the calendar page, the contact page, the timeline
page, and, as always, the what’s new page.
Poor Quality Assurance Could Affect Yucca Mountain License
Quality Assurance, or QA, is a system of management controls that requires employees to follow national nuclear safety standards. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) QA program has a system used to track and verify the quality of data collected at Yucca Mountain. DOE’s QA Program plays a critical role in the Yucca Mountain licensing process, as it will be used to prove to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that the underground
repository will function properly and meet all health and safety standards.
QA is essentially a document trail. It requires employees of DOE contractors and subcontractors to keep consistent, high-quality records of their Yucca Mountain work. DOE is required to use these high-quality records in their license application to NRC. Quality Assurance affects an enormous amount of research, data, and procedures at Yucca Mountain. For
example, the program must ensure the quality of:
The QA program is directed through the DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Office of Quality Assurance, but all Yucca Mountain employees are responsible for implementing the QA program, maintaining
self-assessment, and reporting any problems. DOE recognizes the necessity of a good Quality Assurance Program and is committed to public safety, environmental protection, and meeting licensing regulations.
- public safety and environmental protection efforts
- geologic information, such studies on seismic activity,
volcanism, and underground water movement at
- engineering work, such as research on cask containment
of toxic radioactive waste
- mathematical accuracy, such as data from computer
models that predict the repository’s behavior thousands
of years into the future
- administrative concerns, such as personnel training
Denny Brown, Director of the Office of Quality Assurance, says he is confident that DOE is meeting the intent of the Quality Assurance requirements. However, the QA program has been problematic “since day one,” says Susan Lynch, administrator of technical programs for the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects. In the beginning, work at Yucca Mountain was not
completed according to QA procedures, resulting in a large amount of unusable data and millions of dollars wasted. There have been complaints that DOE is cutting QA corners in its rush to submit a license application by December 2004, according to recent news reports.
Several workers have come forward saying that employees are discouraged from bringing QA problems to light. Last spring a QA auditing team at Navarro Research, a DOE contractor, reported multiple QA problems in the
repository program. Two of the four-member audit team were subsequently reassigned.
Such actions, along with many anonymous complaints from workers, prompted Nevada Senators Reid and Ensign to hold a Quality Assurance hearing last May in Las Vegas. According to news reports, two key witnesses, DOE Yucca
Mountain staff, decided at the last minute not to testify, which motivated the Senators to introduce whistleblower protection legislation in Congress.
DOE itself admits that there are problems with its QA program. When Margaret Chu took over as Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management a year and a half ago, she recognized that many QA procedures were ineffective and that the system was suffering. In a
“Management Improvement Initiatives” document issued in 2002, she outlined Quality Assurance as one of the five key areas needing improvement within the project. She said QA regulations were “confusing and difficult” to follow.
DOE’s Brown, who took over as Director nine months ago, says the QA procedural system was too complex, with certain documents requiring five or six different signatures and several reviews. Brown says the Project is working to improve the system by streamlining procedures and by requiring
better management on all levels of the project. “These problems can’t be fixed overnight,” cautioned Brown. “We’re turning the ship slowly.”
The NRC is also concerned about Yucca Mountain Quality Assurance. Commission’s staff has been holding quarterly QA meetings with DOE for more than a decade in order to keep tabs on their progress and suggest QA improvements.
In past meetings, NRC officials have criticized DOE for trying to use unqualified data to resolve a Yucca Mountain key technical issue. They also highlighted DOE’s difficulty in stopping problems from reoccurring once they were supposedly corrected.
These concerns are shared by the State of Nevada. Officials are worried that DOE is sacrificing Quality Assurance to cut costs and keep to schedule. “ DOE’s attitude seems to be, ‘just trust us’,” said Lynch of the Agency for Nuclear Projects. But Lynch noted that DOE has never done
anything to earn that trust. “DOE always says it will fix everything, but it hasn’t yet,” she said.
But Brown is very confident about the repository’s future performance. He said that from a technical standpoint, so far Yucca Mountain models and data are valid, despite any QA problems. The extent to which Quality Assurance remains a priority for DOE could depend on NRC’s continued scrutiny before and during licensing. While Brown maintains that “nothing gets by the NRC ,” Lynch and other Nevada officials remain dubious. Brown, however, is optimistic that all significant Quality Assurance problems will be solved by the December 2004 deadline. If not, he said he would recommend that the license application be postponed.
NAS Holds Nuclear Waste Transportation Hearing
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) held a hearing about nuclear waste transportation in Las Vegas on July 25, 2003. A 13-member Committee
on Transportation of Radioacaive Waste listened to presentations from Energy Department officials, representatives of Nevada state and local government, transportation experts, activist groups, and concerned
The hearing was part of a two-year independent study being conducted by the
NAS on how to safely transport high level radioactive waste to Yucca Mountain. This was the second of seven planned meetings on the subject.
The panel expects to issue a report on the subject in early
To the dismay of many, a Department of Energy (DOE) official announced at the hearing that waste transportation routes and methods would not be revealed until 2006. Jeff Williams, acting manager of the DOE Transportation Program, said a strategic transportation plan was scheduled for release at the end of September, but that shipping routes and truck versus train decisions would be significantly delayed.
Nevada officials were troubled and angered by the news. “What it means is they are holding 13 (Nevada) counties hostage,” said Nevada transportation advisor Robert Halstead, as reported in the Las Vegas Sun. “I am astounded that they are not ready to make a decision.” “No one can do any planning until they know the mode and the route,” insisted Bob Loux, head of Nevada’s Nuclear Waste Projects Office, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Other participants in the hearing included transportation experts, a nuclear physicist, a terrorist expert, and concerned Nevada residents.
Affected Units of Local Government representatives, including Eureka County, participated in a panel discussion.
Clark County explained the effects of transportation on property values. Nye County and Lincoln County each described their efforts to plan for transportation impacts without a schedule from DOE. Eureka County presented
the concerns of five northern counties regarding rail and highway transportation impacts such as emergency response, land use, private land, water resources, and grazing.
Nye County Natural Resources Director Les Bradshaw pointed out that banks had already refused a loan to one local dairy because of the proposed waste repository. “Our whole future is overshadowed by this nuclear dump
project,” he said, quoted in the Sun. “We are feeling the impacts of stigma.”
Nevada Representative Jon Porter, who was unable to attend the hearing, sent a letter to the panel instead. “Do you really want to further the interests of terrorists with mobile nuclear weapons?” he asked, writing about possible terrorist attacks on shipments. The hearing lasted for eight hours, but no decisions were made at its conclusion. Panel Chairman Neal F.
Lane told the Review-Journal that the panel’s job is to “understand and articulate what the risks are of transporting nuclear waste.” He and other panel members visited the Yucca Mountain site and toured rail and highway
routes in Southern Nevada before holding the hearing.
The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit society of prominent scientists and engineers. The society was founded by Congress in 1863 to advise the government on scientific and technical matters.
State Engineer holds hearings on Yucca Mountain
water rights — On August 22 and 23, Nevada State Engineer
Hugh Ricci held a hearing about the Department of
Energy’s request for a permanent water permit at Yucca
Mountain. The Energy Department (DOE) wants to withdraw
430 acre-feet of water from a Nye County basin
each year for construction and operation
of the nuclear waste repository.
The State of Nevada contends that
such use of underground water would
cause environmental damage to the
State. Senior Deputy Attorney General Marta Adams said
that Nye County water used at Yucca Mountain would
lead to contamination of the underground water supply.
DOE lawyer Brent Kolvet said those arguments had
already been rejected by a federal court. He said DOE’s
water permit application meets all State law requirements.
Engineer Ricci said he would rule on the matter later
at an unspecified date. Former State Engineer Mike Turnipseed
denied DOE’s application once, but the decision
was overturned by the 9th circuit court of appeals. The
court ordered more hearings on the subject.
Skull Valley final license decision postponed — In August, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, responsible
for granting licenses to nuclear
facilities, said it would be unable to
make a final decision about the proposed
spent fuel storage site on the
Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation
before the year’s end. Private
Fuel Storage (PFS), the nuclear facility
consortium behind the proposed
Utah storage unit, failed to submit its final briefings before
the July 21 deadline. PFS is challenging the Board’s
March ruling that the Skull Valley facility would not meet
all safety standards. At issue is the facility’s vulnerability
to airplane crashes from Hill Air Force Base’s training
area. The Board is a judicial arm of the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission. (Las Vegas Review-Journal 8/1/03)
Panel finds Skull Valley site could withstand
earthquake — Although the panel ultimately ruled
against granting PFS a license last March, the Atomic
Safety and Licensing Board did find that the Skull Valley
storage site would be able to adequately sustain an earthquake.
The state of Utah had raised several seismicrelated
concerns about the subsurface soils at the site and
had asked questions about the stability of the casks during
an earthquake. The site, about 50 miles southwest of Salt
Lake City, is located between four fault lines.
Private Fuel Storage was able to demonstrate through studies and
testimony that an earthquake would cause little damage to
the facility. (NCSL Radioactive Waste News, June/July
Spent Fuel shipments will skyrocket if both Yucca
and Skull Valley operate – If Private Fuel Storage
does get a license to build and run the
nuclear waste repository at Skull Valley,
rail shipments to the facility could
number up to 50 a year. Shipments to
Yucca Mountain would be much
higher: Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials
estimate an average of 130 rail loads of three casks each
and 45 truck shipments to the mountain each year for 30
years. Combined, the shipments to the two facilities
would far exceed the 1,300 total nuclear waste shipments
that have been made in NRC casks over the past 20 years.
(Nuclear Waste News, 6/26/03)
Nuclear Waste Transportation Plan on hold until
2006 – A DOE official announced in July that final decisions
on nuclear waste shipping routes
and methods will not be revealed until
2006. A strategic plan about how the
DOE will organize shipments is due out
by late September, but DOE says routes
and critical decisions about the number of
truck versus train shipments will not
come out for 2 or 3 more years. DOE still plans to apply
for a license to build the Yucca repository by December
2004 and anticipates shipping waste by 2010. (Las Vegas
GAO study predicts low risk in nuclear waste
shipments — A recent waste transportation study by the
General Accounting Office concluded
that the likelihood of widespread harm
to human health and the environment
from a terrorist attack or transportation
accident involving spent nuclear fuel is
very low and extremely unlikely. The
GAO, an investigative arm of Congress,
also identified options that would enhance
transportation security. The study was requested
by Congressman Joe Barton, R-TX, chairman of the
House Energy and Commerce Committee. (GAO News
But Nevada officials believe GAO underestimated
the risks — The State of Nevada and watchdog groups
say the GAO’s research was too limited and ignored important studies about terrorism. They point out that the GAO only examined Energy Department and
Nuclear Regulatory Commission contractor reports, and did not look at research on terrorist target selection, or examine any of the State of Nevada’s research.
Moreover, even the GAO admits in the report
that it did not assess the reliability of the data or
the methodologies used in the studies it reviewed.
On the other hand, the Nevada Agency for Nuclear
Projects acknowledges that the GAO’s major
recommendations regarding enhanced transportation
security generally agree with theirs. In the report,
GAO recommends that security of spent fuel shipments
can be enhanced by reducing the number of
shipments, by utilizing dedicated trains, and by shipping
the oldest fuel first. The Nevada Agency for
Nuclear Projects is preparing a detailed analysis of
the GAO study. (NWPO Press Release, 8/15/03;
Public Citizen Press Release, 8/14/03)
Waste from Nevada Test Site may be shipped
through Eastern Nevada — DOE is considering a proposal
to ship transuranic nuclear waste across rural Nevada
after California opposed use of one of its southern
roadways. In July, California officials protested a DOE
plan to ship the waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
WIPP) in New Mexico through southern California. The
1,130-mile route would avoid Las Vegas by shipping
waste-bearing drums 90 miles on California Route 127
through Death Valley.
Western governors have reached a compromise by
proposing that the waste be shipped to WIPP via rural
Nevada after 2005. The 1,800-mile alternate route would
take waste along two-lane highways through Tonopah,
Ely and Wendover. The waste would go through Salt
Lake City in Utah, swing up through Wyoming, and pass
down through Colorado on its way to New Mexico (see
map). About 55 shipments would be made through California
until December 31, 2004, and then the remaining
55 shipments would go through Nevada in 2005.
Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects Director Bob Loux
said the state has yet to take a position on the proposal, but
he said it might be acceptable. “I suspect it would not be
objectionable primarily because we're doing low-level
(nuclear waste) shipments on those routes generally,” Loux
said. The waste includes laboratory clothing, tools, plastics
and other solids contaminated with plutonium, neptunium
and other radioactive material produced in nuclear weapons
research and production.
But some Eastern Nevada officials are unhappy with the
proposal. They point out that most of the waste originated
in California, and say Nevada is bending to both the will of
California and Clark County leaders. “This is clout, no
question," said Mike Baughman, consultant to White Pine
County. “We find it absurd that the DOE would consider
this.” (Las Vegas Review-Journal, 8/19/03)