If Nevadans want more nuclear waste options, start with Congress

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In the Nevada Appeal on March 6, Guy W. Farmer wrote that "Yucca Mountain Nuclear Dump isn't 'Inevitable.'" Let me take a few minutes of your readers' time to share a different perspective.

First, can we refer to the nuclear waste disposal facility proposed for Yucca Mountain by its official name? It is a repository and more correctly a geological repository as defined in the law that set the repository project into existence. That law is the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. It seems that many 'dump' opponents choose not to recognize it as such, but that is the law that sets the policy for how this country will manage all of its federal and commercial high-level nuclear waste.

That law set as policy that all such waste would be disposed of in a geologic repository. Therefore, those that do not wish to dispose of the waste in that manner should seek to change the law.

Not everyone may like the manner in which Yucca Mountain was chosen from among first nine sites considered and later from three that were finalists, but that is what Congress decided in the amendment to the NWPA in 1987. Once again, if people do not think that is the appropriate site, they should seek to change the law.

Quite the opposite took place in 2002 when the secretary of energy drew upon almost 20 years of scientific evaluation of the Yucca Mountain site for suitability for the repository purpose and recommended the site to the President. As was the special entitlement under NWPA, Gov. Kenny Guinn objected to the recommendation and that would have stopped the project had both houses of Congress not voted to override the governor's veto, which they did on a bipartisan vote and the president signed that joint resolution into law.

That is where we are today. The next step was to have been to move the question to the independent agency of government, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC is designated by the NWPA to weigh the suitability of the site from a regulatory standpoint using not only its own regulations but applying the crucial radiation standard issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.)

As Mr. Farmer noted there has been delay of the Department of Energy in submitting an application for the NRC to consider. The delay is related to the need to meet the NRC requirements for document submission and perhaps more to the need for the EPA to revise the radiation standards to meet a court order. The DOE project managers say that they intend to submit the application by the end of 2005 - about a year past its earlier schedule.

Despite the NWPA choosing geologic disposal from a number of disposal methods, the Nevada attorney general says, "I can't think of a more primitive way to deal with this waste." Once again, he should address that policy choice with Congress.

Farmer cites a suggestion by a spokesperson of Rep. Gibbons that we should be pursuing 'recycling' (more correctly termed as re-processing) as is done in other countries, such as France and the United Kingdom. There are two major factors to consider in reprocessing: when Congress passed the NWPA it was partly as a result of a presidential order at the time to forego reprocessing in this country - as had been the plan for much of the spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear reactors.

Secondly, to the best of my knowledge, even with present types of reprocessing there would remain nuclear waste residue that requires geologic disposal, albeit for less volume of material and for a shorter period of time, but still hundreds or thousands of years. That is, even if we changed the NWPA policy for geologic disposal in favor of reprocessing, there would still be a need for a repository.

Mr. Farmer concludes the Yucca Mountain project is "fatally flawed" and somehow suggests that the solution might be to "dump" the waste at Skull Valley in Utah. That would take a change in NWPA, of course, and it seems to infer that Skull Valley promises superior merit to Yucca Mountain for a repository.

We don't know that it is or is not; to my knowledge it has never been considered for underground disposal. It has been proposed as a site for a temporary nuclear waste storage facility (up to 40 years) based on an agreement between the Skull Valley Band of the Goshutes and a consortium of private utilities.

Other than requiring a license from the NRC to store the materials, the proposed arrangement is a private venture to a) solve a temporary storage problem for the utilities - which were promised in NWPA and in contracts with DOE that the federal government would begin disposal of their spent fuel beginning in 1998 and b) provide an attractive business venture for the Goshutes, who I understand do not have many other attractive economic development alternatives.

The NRC is close to issuing a license for the temporary storage. There was never any consideration of using that site for permanent disposal. The utilities have no reason to, since the federal government is responsible for permanent disposal and the Goshutes may have a different view on such a proposal on their land.

In conclusion, whether Mr. Farmer and others may like it or not, it is national policy to permanently dispose of high-level waste - at least 70,000 metric tons of it - in a suitable geologic repository. Congress has approved Yucca Mountain as suitable, but the final determination of suitability from a safety standpoint will be done by the technical experts of the NRC once the Department of Energy submits an application that will be rigorously examined in a public proceeding that is open to challenge and could take three or four years.

I suppose we can expect further legal challenge on different bases than the 12 out of 13 legal issues that were decided in favor of the government last year.

I suppose there will be plenty of time while the license preparation and review are proceeding for evaluation of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing to be considered, as has been suggested in some recent studies and by some leading political figures such as Sen. Pete Domenici, but it must be understood that there are pros and cons of that approach and we still end up with a requirement to dispose of some radioactive waste of lesser amount but still potent toxicity. Step One would be to convince Congress to authorize consideration of reprocessing.

n Brian O'Connell P.E. is director of the Nuclear Waste Program Office of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in Washington, D.C. Its members include the governmental agencies engaged in the regulation of utilities and carriers.


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