Waste storage plan called risky

LAS VEGAS - The health of Nevada residents could be at risk if the Energy Department implements a plan to store high-level nuclear waste above ground outside Yucca Mountain while a permanent repository is being built, according to state officials.

The DOE is weighing storing nuclear waste above ground near Yucca Mountain to save money on a permanent repository at Yucca now estimated at $58 billion, the Las Vegas Sun reported Tuesday.

Construction of a permanent repository designed to bury 77,000 tons of radioactive commercial and defense waste would be stretched out over two decades - with completion sometime after 2030 - to make it more affordable, according to a DOE plan.

Meanwhile tons of waste would be shipped to Midway Valley, a stone's throw from Yucca Mountain, in a section of the Nevada Test Site not contaminated by nuclear testing. There it could be stored in shielded containers on the valley's surface or in pools of water, similar to the pools at the nation's 110 nuclear reactor sites.

Two Nevada officials see safety as the major problem with the DOE plan. There's a question of protecting the environment from radiation releases, and the potential for earthquakes in Midway Valley could stop the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from allowing the DOE to store waste there.

A 5.6 magnitude quake on June 29, 1992, rattled Little Skull Mountain, less than 12 miles from Midway Valley, and damaged a field office in the area, said Joe Strolin, administrator of the planning division for the state's Agency for Nuclear Projects.

''The big issue is whether the site could be licensed for storage under current regulations,'' Strolin said.

Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is the only site being studied to become the nation's high-level nuclear waste repository. The DOE is in charge of studying the site's suitability and would oversee the construction of the repository, if it is approved.

The plan to temporarily store waste above ground, offered by TRW Environmental Safety Systems Inc., the primary Yucca Mountain contractor, is tucked within two technical reports on the rising cost of the project, dated May and December 1999.

But TRW's proposals would likely not be approved, said Bob Loux, director of the state's Agency for Nuclear Projects.

''The DOE could not meet the current Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements for siting nuclear (waste storage) at the Test Site,'' Loux said.


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