House Energy and Power Subcommittee Passes Nuclear Waste Bill: Flawed Measure Would Open Door to Transportation Accidents, Gut Environmental Standards

For immediate release Contact: Bill Magavern July 28, 1995 Michael Grynberg 202-546-4996

House Energy and Power Subcommittee Passes Nuclear Waste Bill: Flawed Measure Would Open Door to Transportation Accidents, Gut Environmental Standards The nation’s high-level nuclear waste took one step closer to transportation through the nation’s communities as the House Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power passed H.R. 1020, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1995. If adopted by Congress, the bill would force an unnecessary and unwanted nuclear dump upon Nevada, slash environmental standards, and open the door to transportation of high-level nuclear waste on an unprecedented scale. “Today a majority of the subcommittee chose to look out for the nuclear industry,” Michael Grynberg, a researcher at Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project, said. “When some of the deadliest substances ever created begin passing through or by their districts, they will be asked why they were not looking out for their constituents instead.” Having created thousands of tons of high-level nuclear waste, nuclear utilities are looking to the government to take their garbage away. The Department of Energy is currently studying Yucca Mountain in Nevada to determine its suitability as a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste. Because the nuclear utilities do not want to wait until a repository is ready, H.R. 1020 would force the construction of an “interim” storage facility in Nevada, overriding current law that prevents such a facility from being placed in Nevada. This prohibition is important to ensure the honesty of site suitability studies at Yucca Mountain, but the bill would force construction before the necessary studies are complete. “Congress’ boast of concern for state’s rights is being exposed for the hollow rhetoric that it is,” Bill Magavern, Director of Critical Mass, said. “To satisfy the whims of industry, Congress is willing to shove nuclear waste down Nevada’s throat.” Worst of all, Magavern added, is the fact that there is no safety reason to ship nuclear waste off site, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded that irradiated reactor fuel can be safely stored at reactors for 100 years. Shipping waste to an unnecessary “interim” facility, from which it would likely have to be shipped again, only exposes citizens to the risks of radioactive waste transportation. If a nuclear dump opens in Nevada, transportation of nuclear waste would proceed on a scale unprecedented in human history. Over 95 percent of the nation’s waste radioactivity would be shipped. According to a recent study by the state of Nevada, 43 states would be affected. Many of these trips would be quite long, as most of the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors are east of the Mississippi River. Serious safety concerns surround nuclear transportation. With a greater number of shipments, the likelihood of accidents involving a cask of irradiated nuclear fuel increases. Adequate steps have not been taken to ensure cask integrity in the event of such a mishap. Cask safety standards fail to incorporate the full range of trauma to which a container may be exposed in an accident. Furthermore, regulations do not even require testing on full-scale models to ensure regulatory compliance. Even accident-free transport of highly radioactive materials will expose people along transport routes to radiation. “If citizens are to accept the risks of nuclear waste transportation, these risks must be in the service of a carefully considered program designed with public safety, not the convenience of utility executives, as the single top priority,” Grynberg said. “A government bailout of an ailing, uneconomical industry does not meet this standard. Until a real solution to the problem of nuclear waste can be devised, irradiated fuel should remain the responsibility of those who chose to generate it.” The bill would also gut environmental standards by prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing regulations to protect the public from radiation releases from a repository, carving holes in the National Environmental Policy Act, and setting a repository radiation release standard that poses a lifetime risk of one cancer death for every 285 exposed individuals. In passing the bill, the subcommittee rejected amendments that would have addressed some of the legislation’s major flaws. Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) offered several amendments that would have restored protections for the state of Nevada, upheld environmental standards, and moved the nuclear waste of shutdown reactors to the head of the waste acceptance line. “Apologists for the nuclear industry will claim that this is a ‘compromise’ bill, but the only thing compromised is public health and safety,” Magavern said. “The subcommittee displayed its rejection of genuine compromise when it refused to support the proposals of Representative Markey. In the halls of Congress, corporate convenience still takes precedence over common sense.”

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Public Citizen is a non-profit, non-partisan consumer research and advocacy organization. Critical Mass is its energy policy group.