The Environmental Protection Agency spent just a little more than a year revising its radiation standard for the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The original radiation standard was a proposed maximum amount of radiation that would be allowed to escape from the repository each year over a period of 10,000 years. The standard was created by calculating how well the waste would be protected from the outer environment once it was buried under the mountain's thick rock in man-made casks. A federal court, basing its decision on a recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences, ruled last year that the proposed daily maximum amount of escaping radiation should be in place far longer than 10,000 years.
On Tuesday, the EPA came out with its revision. The new standard retains the proposed maximum Yucca-related exposure for 10,000 years, which is 15 millirems per person per year (a single chest X-ray is 10 millirems). But in an effort to comply with the court order, the EPA announced that it was adding another proposed radiation standard for the next 990,000 years. During this period, the standard would be 350 millirems per person per year. The EPA says this second standard is equivalent to the natural and man-made radiation that people absorb each day. This second standard also requires the Energy Department to study what could happen to Yucca Mountain over 1 million years in terms of destructive events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, climactic changes and corrosion of the mountain and the man-made structures that would contain the waste.
In announcing the new standard, the EPA was affirmative in its belief that it could be achieved. "It is an unprecedented scientific challenge to develop proposed standards today that will protect the next 25,000 generations of Americans," said Jeffrey Holmstead, the EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation.
Well, pardon our skepticism. The EPA has been around now for 35 years and in all that time hasn't even learned how to protect the public from dirty air and water. So how could it learn, in just over a year, how to protect the public from Yucca Mountain's radiation for an extra 990,000 years? And how can it expect the Energy Department to protect people in the distant future from cataclysmic events affecting the mountain?
We hope the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will rule on the new radiation standard, comes around to sharing our skepticism.
- The Las Vegas Sun