Researchers say nuclear canisters may corrode in Yucca Mountain

LAS VEGAS -- Researchers working for Nevada told a panel of scientists on Thursday that heated, mineral-rich water seeping into the planned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump might corrode containment canisters and release radioactivity.

A Department of Energy official dismissed the findings as flawed and said they were developed only to bolster the state's opposition to the federal project.

"This is something the state has said before," said Allen Benson, spokesman for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management in Las Vegas.

He said researchers Roger Staehle and Don Shettel at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., based their findings on an artificially created environment "that could never exist at Yucca Mountain."

Bob Loux, chief of Nevada's state Nuclear Projects Office, said Staehle and Shettel made their report to the National Academy of Sciences Board of Radioactive Waste Management in Washington, D.C.

Loux said the two will make a similar presentation next month to the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board.

The experiments suggest that heated Yucca Mountain water might dissolve minerals and form an acidic vapor called "aqua regia" that could corrode the metal alloy containers holding the waste, Loux said.

Loux, the state's top anti-Yucca official, said the laboratory tests went beyond previous research suggesting that mercury, fluorine and other trace elements in the water might harm containment casks.

Benson said the Energy Department stands behind scientific findings submitted to President Bush and Congress supporting development of the project.

He also said a decision on which alloy will be used to manufacture the containment casks won't be made until the Energy Department applies at the end of 2004 for an operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Congress in July approved the department's plan to entomb 77,000 tons of the nation's most radioactive waste at the western edge of the Nevada Test Site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The repository would open in 2010 and accept nuclear waste through 2034. Scientists have said the stored commercial, industrial and military waste could remain dangerously radioactive for 10,000 years.

Gov. Kenny Guinn and the state Board of Examiners in September approved a new $4 million contract with Egan & Associates, a McLean, Va., law firm leading the legal fight against the nuclear dump.

Nevada is suing in federal court on several fronts to stop the project, and Loux told the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects that the money -- plus at least $3 million he said he will seek in the upcoming legislative session -- will fund the legal battle.

Also Thursday, Loux said his office was ending the year with an unspent balance of $3 million. The state Legislature had allocated $7 million in taxpayer money this year to fight Yucca Mountain. Guinn's call for donations raised $1.9 million more.

The commission praised and accepted Loux's year-end report on the state's 20-year fight against the dump.

However, Chairman Brian McKay said the document would not be made public until it is submitted to the governor and state legislators.

"The governor should have it before he is asked about it," McKay said.


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