In this edition:
Announces EIS Hearings
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has agreed to extend from 90 days to 180 days the period for public comment on the Yucca Mountain Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on July 27. DOE bowed to pressure from Nevada's congressional delegation, Governor Guinn, the affected counties, and members of the public all of whom had requested the 180 day comment period. Release of the Environmental Impact Statement is delayed, likely until mid-August, according to DOE.
DOE has also announced that it plans to hold public hearings in Nevada on the Yucca Mountain Draft EIS. Locally, hearings are planned in Crescent Valley and Austin.
Eureka County will hold a pre-hearing meeting on September 16 in Crescent Valley to help residents prepare for the hearings. Participants will learn about what to expect at the hearing, what's in the EIS and how to prepare comments. Public comments provide a complete and legal record of the public's concerns about the impact that a repository would have on the affected communities and the environment.
The DEIS will evaluate the construction, operation, and eventual closure of an underground repository for disposal of up to 70,000 tons of commercial and DOE-owned spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. It will also analyze rail, truck and intermodal options at the national and statewide level to ship the waste to the proposed Yucca Mountain site. The "Carlin" rail corridor, proposed to run from Beowawe through Crescent Valley, is one of five being considered in Nevada.
Originally, DOE committed to a 180-day public comment period in its 1997 Scoping Comment Summary Document. However, citing budget cuts and the necessity to "compress the EIS schedule," DOE cut the comment time in half, to only 90 days. Lake Barrett, Director of DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM), denied both the State of Nevada's and Eureka County's requests for re-extension.
In a recent letter to DOE Secretary Richardson, Governor Kenny Guinn expressed concern that "OCRWM's insistence on shortening the comment period for the draft EIS may be based on the perceived need to make up EIS schedule slippage rather than on the imperatives for adequate and meaningful public review of this crucial decision document."
DOE will make the DEIS available in document form and on CD-ROM. Copies will also be available at the Crescent Valley Town Center and the Eureka Public Works Office. To order your copy call 1-800-967-3477.
Radiation -- Particles or waves from atomic or nuclear processes. Exposure to these particles and rays can be harmful. Radioactivity refers to the rate at which radioactive material emits radiation.
Background Radiation -- Radiation that occurs from natural radioactive material that is always present in the environment. This includes solar and cosmic radiation, and radiation from soil and rocks, radon gas, and the human body.
Millirem -- A millirem is one-thousandth of a rem, which is the unit used to measure the effect that radiation has on humans. 100 millirems per year is equal to about one-third of the average American's annual dose from nature.
High-Level Waste (HLW) -- Highly radioactive material that results from the chemical reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. It contains fission products, traces of uranium and plutonium, and other transuranic elements. High-level waste is produced in a liquid form and must be solidified before disposal.
Transuranic Waste -- Protective clothing, equipment, glassware, tools, soils, and sludge contaminated with manmade radioactive elements. The majority of transuranic waste is a byproduct of nuclear weapons research, production, and cleanup. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which recently opened, is designed to store this type of nuclear waste.
Low-level Waste (LLW) -- All radioactive waste that is not classified as high-level waste, spent fuel, transuranic waste, or by-product material.
Civilian Waste -- Any radioactive waste generated by manufacturing industries, institutions (for medical or research purposes), and commercial nuclear power plants. Civilian waste includes both high-level and low-level nuclear waste. "Spent nuclear fuel" refers to nuclear waste from commercial power plants.
Defense Waste -- Radioactive waste that results from the research and production of nuclear weapons, the operation of naval reactors, the reprocessing of defense spent fuel, and the decommissioning of nuclear-powered ships and submarines.
Repository -- A permanent disposal facility where radioactive waste would undergo deep, geologic burial. If Yucca Mountain is designated as a permanent repository and licensed by the NRC, it would become the resting place of the nation's high-level waste.
Transportation Cask -- During the transportation of radioactive material, casks are the containers that provide shielding against waste leakage and prevent radiation from reaching the outside world. Typically, they are about 12 feet in diameter and measure 22 feet long with a weight of 200 tons. Lead and steel are common materials used in the manufacture of casks, which must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Reprocessing -- Refers to the process by which spent fuel is separated into material such as plutonium and uranium to be reused and waste material that must be disposed of.
Transmutation -- The process of transforming one element into another by a series of nuclear reactions, changing the molecular structure and in radioactive substances, reducing radiation hazard. Though untested and extremely costly, transmutation has been considered as an alternative to geologic burial.
The Beowawe Crescent Valley Nuclear Waste Awareness Committee has formed to increase public awareness about the Department of Energy's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project. Specifically, the Committee is concerned that Crescent Valley is being considered as one of five rail routes to take waste to Yucca Mountain. The "Carlin route" would be constructed from the Union Pacific tracks in Beowawe and proceed southwest through Crescent Valley and into Grass Valley.
At the July 8 Committee meeting, Steve Frishman of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office and Judy Treichel of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force spoke about the state's position on Yucca Mountain, and scientific, technical and public health and safety concerns. These include:
The Committee's August 11 meeting will focus on identifying potential impacts from the proposed rail corridor.
According to the latest public opinion poll taken by the University of Nevada in 1998, 75% of Nevadans oppose the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. While the people in Nevada are adverse to the idea of a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, if the site is found suitable and subsequently licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), it could become the final resting place for as much as 70,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste.
The State's deep rooted opposition to the repository is ubiquitous throughout Nevada. Not only are most of Nevadans opposed to the repository, their opposition is shared by the State's political leadership. In fact, when Congress singled out Yucca Mountain as the only site for detailed study in 1987, the State's political leaders reacted by establishing a firm policy opposing the project. Today that policy remains as the State's official position.
Since 1987 the State's opposition to Yucca Mountain has also intensified. Today Nevada's political leadership contends the project has become tangled in issues of money, questionable science, and political power. State officials contend that issues related to the safety and health of Nevadans have been lost in the political and economic struggle over the final disposal of nuclear power's waste products.
Beyond these political concerns, State officials maintain that the Yucca Mountain controversy also "involves fundamental issues of a state's right to determine its economic and environmental future and to consent or object to federal projects within its borders." Many citizens believe that not only does the project pose very real environmental and safety threats for them, but that it is also a breach of state sovereignty.
Specific technical issues are often cited as the basis of opposition to the idea of irretrievably burying thousands of tons of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Yucca Mountain is in an area that, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, is classified as very prone to earthquakes. There are at least thirty-three known faults in the area of the proposed repository. Faults can cause problems because they create underground paths in the rock where water and gasses can flow, increasing the risk of waste package (canister) dissolution and groundwater contamination. Fault movements could also potentially breach the waste containers, leading to even faster groundwater contamination. However, the Department of Energy (DOE) contends that earthquakes would not pose a major threat to a repository because any shaking effects that would occur would not be severe enough to disrupt underground structures or alter groundwater beneath the mountain.
Opponents to the proposed repository also cite volcanic activity as a problem facing permanent burial of nuclear waste at the site. There is evidence that volcanic activity has taken place in the immediate vicinity of the mountain within the recent geologic past. If in the next 10,000 years any volcanic activity were to resume in the area, it could have disastrous consequences for a repository. DOE holds that the chances of renewed volcanic activity near the proposed repository are slim enough to be considered insignificant.
Other scientific uncertainties that concern State officials are thermal heat generated by the radioactive waste, accidental human intrusion, a possible rise in the level of the water table, and future climate changes.
In addition, some Nevadans are convinced that a repository at Yucca Mountain would have many unwanted economic effects for the state. The fear of an accident during the transportation of highly radioactive nuclear waste could be harmful to Nevada's image as an attractive tourist destination, damaging the state's most important industry. DOE maintains that the chances of an accident where radiation is released are slim, citing its past nuclear waste transportation record.
Overall, State officials have raised a myriad of issues about the Yucca Mountain repository that Nevadans believe cannot be readily dismissed. According to the State, many questions concerning political, legal, scientific and public safety issues still remain unanswered.
This chart shows the differences between existing radiation standards and those proposed for the Yucca Mountain repository. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is proposing a 25 millirem per year limit for people living near the repository. It is possible that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will propose a 15 millirem standard for Yucca Mountain as well as a separate groundwater standard. There is also a bill in the U.S. Congress that would override both these rules and set the limit on the amount of permissible radiation from a Yucca Mountain repository at 100 millirems per year — chart source: Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has published a draft rule for licensing criteria for the proposed high-level radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
The rule has a "place-holder" standard with an all-pathways dose limit of 25 millirem per year for the repository, until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can complete its rule. The NRC has decided not to wait for the EPA to finish its environmental standards for the proposed repository; the EPA is two years overdue in finalizing the standards.
The philosophies of the EPA and the NRC differ regarding the radiation protection standards. The EPA may argue that a separate groundwater standard is necessary to protect potable water at Yucca Mountain. The NRC believes it is unnecessary and that an all-pathways standard provides sufficient protection. S608, the latest nuclear waste disposal legislation, gives the NRC, not the EPA, final authority to develop radiation standards.
The EPA reportedly is considering a 4 millirem (mrem) groundwater protection standard for the repository proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nev. Some federal officials believe this standard is unrealistic for Yucca Mountain, although it is the standard for the Waste isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. NRC Chairman Shirley Jackson testified before a House Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power that the standard is "unrealistic." The draft EPA proposal is purported to also contain a 15 mrem all-pathways annual dose limit; this limit would be separate from the proposed groundwater requirement. Adapted from the National Conference of State Legislatures High-Level Radioactive Waste News, April, 1999
Beowawe Crescent Valley Nuclear Waste Awareness Committee: Public meetings will be held August 11, September 16, and October 14 at 7:00 p.m. in the Crescent Valley Town Center
"How to Participate in the EIS Hearing": September 16 at 7:00 p.m. in Crescent Valley
Eureka County Board of Commissioners: Meets 6th and 20th of every month (unless these dates fall on weekends)
Crescent Valley Town Advisory Board: Meets on the 12th and 26th of every month (unless these dates fall on weekends)
White Pine County EIS Public Meeting: September 8, Ely. Call 775-289-2033 for details
Last month the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 14-6 to abandon plans to send nuclear waste to the Nevada Test Site, ending the possibility for interim storage in Nevada in the immediate future. It was agreed instead to keep the highly radioactive nuclear waste onsite at the commercial nuclear power plants where it is currently stored until a permanent waste repository is completed and operational. Nevada Senator Richard Bryan called the vote a "real victory for Nevada."
Frustrated by the threat of a presidential veto and staunch opposition by the entire Nevada delegation, committee chair Senator Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, proposed keeping the nuclear waste at the reactor sites, with DOE taking title to the waste, until a permanent repository is ready. Other substantial changes were also made to the bill. If passed, the new amended version of the bill would speed up the Yucca Mountain process, mandating the site to start receiving waste by 2007 instead of 2010. It would also allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to set the standards for radiation exposure instead of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This last provision is somewhat contentious as it is widely believe that the EPA would hold the proposed repository to higher standards than the NRC.
Surprisingly, an amendment to study transmutation and other alternatives to permanent geologic burial was also added to the bill. Part of the implementation of this provision could allow "temporary" storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain as part of the study.
Senator Murkowski has predicted that the bill will reach the floor by August. The bill must pass the full Senate and then be approved by the House of Representatives before it goes to the president to be either signed into law or vetoed.
Max Powell of DOE's Yucca Mountain Project briefed the Eureka County Board of Commissioners at their May 20 meeting. Powell informed the Commissioners of the status and progress that DOE is making to study Yucca Mountain, and described the work being done now to answer questions that remain about the site. Powell distributed transportation route maps of the routes likely to be considered in the EIS. He answered questions from the Commission and the public about DOE's Yucca mountain plans, research, schedule and funding.
Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn addressed the nuclear waste disposal issue in his state of the state address to the Legislature. Guinn indicated he will continue to support the state's opposition to a high-level radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain by boosting funding for the Nuclear Waste Projects Agency. Guinn's budget, approved by the Nevada Legislature in May, included more than $1 million in state funds for the agency in addition to $400,000 in Nevada Department of Transportation funding and $320,000 from the federal government for oversight activities.
In early February, Governor Guinn testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Power about HR 45, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1999. In his testimony, Governor Guinn concentrated on two central themes -- political fairness, and equity and safety. Governor Guinn's position was bolstered by the passage immediately before his testimony of Nevada SJR 4, which also opposes the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
Governor Guinn also held a "State Summit on Nuclear Waste" with congressional members, state executive branch officers and legislative leaders on February 16 at the capitol. The summit allowed leaders to map political, legal and scientific strategies to prevent nuclear waste from entering the state. After the summit Guinn stated, "This [nuclear waste] is clearly the most devastating environmental and economical problem that Nevada's citizens will face." Adapted from the National Conference of State Legislatures High-Level Radioactive Waste News, April, 1999
DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management will focus its studies for the next several years on water movement through the mountain and the design of the proposed repository. DOE has determined that -- to protect public health and the environment for thousands of years -- there must be limited water contact with the waste package and a low rate of release of radionuclides from waste packages that are breached by water corrosion. DOE scientists must determine whether they can ensure that there will be limited infiltration of water contacting the waste packages after they are placed in the repository. The Viability Assessment has several findings that indicate that water may move through the mountain by methods that the scientists need to further understand. In early 1996, DOE scientists found evidence indicating that some water may be traveling from ground surface to the repository level in 50 years or less. DOE is conducting joint studies at Yucca Mountain with the State of Nevada University System. Adapted from the National Conference of State Legislatures High-Level Radioactive Waste News, April, 1999