State asks NRC to reject plan for Yucca drip shields

LAS VEGAS - Nevada is asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reject an Energy Department plan to install metal alloy shields to prevent water from dripping onto radioactive waste canisters in the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump.

In a letter Tuesday to NRC Chairman Dale Klein, Bob Loux, chief of the state Nuclear Projects Agency and the administrator of state opposition to the Yucca project, called the idea of robots installing expensive and heavy drip shields made of rare metals "highly speculative."

"DOE's claim that Yucca Mountain can meet applicable post-closure health and safety standards is precariously balanced on one slender and implausible assumption - that 11,500 titanium-palladium alloy drip shields will be installed a hundred years or more from now," Loux says in his three-page letter. "There is no safety net underlying this assumption."

Allen Benson, a Yucca Mountain project spokesman, responded saying the Energy Department looked forward to a review following submittal of a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"The design of the repository and the department's safety case will be included in the license application," Benson said. Project officials say they expect to file the application by June 30.

Loux's objection is based on an April 3 technical exchange between federal and state scientists who met in Las Vegas to consider plans for Yucca Mountain, the national nuclear waste dump proposed for a site 90 miles northwest of the city.

Plans call for entombing 77,000 tons of spent commercial reactor fuel now piling up around the country, as well as high-level radioactive waste from defense activities, in tunnels some 1,000 feet beneath the ancient volcanic ridge.

Project officials propose using titanium-palladium alloy plates to protect waste canisters from water that is expected to inevitably seep into the repository over the course of tens of thousands of years.

But Loux said Energy Department calculations show the proposed titanium-palladium alloy drip shields will corrode, eventually allowing water to compromise the waste containment canisters and release radiation exceeding "by a factor of ten" health and safety standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Loux also said that installing the 5-ton shields drip shields a century from now may not be feasible.

Robots to do the work have yet to be invented, he said, and they would have to operate in radioactive, hot, rock-strewn tunnels.

What's more, the amount of titanium needed for 11,500 drip shields "would consume about a third to half of the world's current annual titanium production," Loux wrote.

"The availability of such quantities of this material a hundred years or more in the future is not something that anyone can assure with any confidence," he wrote. "That is even more the case with palladium, which is classified as a rare metal."

Also Tuesday, Nevada's congressional delegation issued a statement calling for the Energy Department to sever ties with the law firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius regarding any additional work on the Yucca Mountain Project because of conflicts of interest.

Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and John Ensign, R-Nev., along with Reps. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, and Republicans Jon Porter and Dean Heller, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman asking him to recuse the law firm because of conflicts cited in a recent inspector general's report.


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