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EPA Radiation Standards Offer Inadequate Protection from Proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Dump; Important Precedent for Groundwater Protection Undermined by Rule’s Deficiencies

Alliance for Nuclear Accountability – Clean Water Action – Citizen Alert – Committee to Bridge the Gap – Natural Resources Defense Council – Nuclear Information and Resource Service – Physicians for Social Responsibility – Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program – Sierra Club – U.S. Public Interest Research Group

June 6, 2001

EPA Radiation Standards Offer Inadequate Protection from Proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Dump; Important Precedent for Groundwater Protection Undermined by Rule’s Deficiencies

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today finalized radiation protection standards for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository that establish a regulatory framework for legalized radiological contamination in Nevada, said environmental, public interest, and consumer advocacy groups today.

“This is another example of the Bush Administration weakening environmental regulations to keep a bad project alive,” said Lisa Gue, policy analyst with Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.

Yucca Mountain, located near Las Vegas, Nev., is currently the only site under consideration for a potential dump for high-level radioactive waste generated by U.S. commercial reactors and weapons facilities. Yucca Mountain sits above an aquifer that is a critical source of water for irrigation, dairy farming and drinking water. The EPA is required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to set radiation protection standards for the site. The agency released a proposed rule for comment in 1999. The final rule was issued today.

The final EPA rule retains a standard for multiple pathways of 15 millirem per year and a separate 4 millirem per year standard for exposure from groundwater. The separate groundwater standard was a central focus of public comments to the agency during the rulemaking process. However, the measures for implementing these standards continue to be inconsistent with basic scientific and regulatory principles. For these reasons, we oppose the final EPA rule.

The central weaknesses of the EPA standards include:

By arbitrarily limiting the standard to the first 10,000 years of operation, the dose limits for the repository do not account for the maximum radionuclide exposures that will be caused by Yucca Mountain, which are projected to occur much later.

The compliance point for determining conformity with the 4 millirem per year groundwater standard is located 18 km from the site, rather than within the site boundary.

EPA’s dilution factor and distant point of compliance for the groundwater standard are contrary to the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

EPA does not take into account the substantial radiation sources at the Nevada Test Site, which the Department of Energy estimates could have impacts on groundwater quality comparable to those of Yucca Mountain.

“While we view the inclusion of a separate groundwater standard for Yucca Mountain as a very important precedent, the EPA standards for Yucca Mountain will not adequately protect the public,” said David Adelman, senior attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council. Moreover, the Bush Administration’s standards undermine the Safe Drinking Water Act by significantly weakening the implementation requirements for the groundwater standard.

Public interest, environmental, and consumer advocacy organizations have closely followed EPA’s rulemaking process for this standard, and have consistently emphasized the need for a stringent standard given the extremely toxic nature of high-level radioactive waste and the lack of experience with geologic disposal. “EPA’s final rule does not address many of our significant health and safety concerns associated with the Yucca Mountain repository proposal,” said Ruth Swanson, Associate Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Although the rule issued today contains a separate groundwater protection standard, the final EPA standards for Yucca Mountain threaten public health and promote reliance on dilution rather than containment of nuclear waste to meet regulatory requirements. “From the beginning, the process for devising standards for Yucca Mountain has been driven by the intent to fit the standards to the site, rather than to ensure that the public and the environment are adequately protected,” said John Hadder, northern Nevada coordinator with Citizen Alert. “The standard issued today continues this tradition.”