NRC Issues Lukewarm Review of Proposed Nuclear Waste Dump

Nov. 16, 2001

NRC Issues Lukewarm Review of Proposed Nuclear Waste Dump

Public Citizen Urges Rejection of Repository

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? Additional research and analysis is required to substantiate proposals for a high-level radioactive waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev., according to a new review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Absent this information, the Department of Energy (DOE) should abandon plans to pursue the dump?s development, Public Citizen said today.

The NRC announced on Wednesday that it had submitted preliminary comments on the sufficiency of Department of Energy?s (DOE) site characterization activities at Yucca Mountain. The NRC concluded that the DOE hasn?t compiled sufficient information on the dump. However, the agency said that it “believes that sufficient at-depth site characterization analysis and waste form proposal information, although not available now, will be available at the time of a potential license application.”

“The NRC?s sufficiency review amounts to merely a statement of faith indicating the agency?s hypothetical confidence in the results of analyses not yet completed,” said Lisa Gue, a policy analyst with Public Citizen. “The DOE should not be contemplating a site recommendation before site characterization activities have been satisfactorily completed.”

The NRC?s comments include a summary of nine “key technical issues” identified by the agency as “important to repository performance.” Of the 37 sub-issues listed, only five are considered resolved, with the vast majority still requiring additional information, testing and analysis by the DOE. The NRC also identified safety and security issues as a concern, but stopped short of specifically describing the implications of a terrorist act at the proposed facility. Despite NRC?s findings, the DOE has not announced any change in plans to pursue the Yucca Mountain dump.

A 1987 amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act directed the DOE to assess the suitability of Yucca Mountain, which is located approximately 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, for development as the world?s first high-level nuclear waste repository. Under the plan, 77,000 tons of radioactive waste from U.S. nuclear power plants and the DOE weapons complex would be transported through 45 states to the proposed dump.

“A nuclear waste repository would introduce new nuclear dangers in Nevada, not to mention the risks involved in transporting high-level radioactive waste across the country,” Gue said. “Given current concerns about terrorism and security, proceeding with the Yucca Mountain proposal would be reckless and irresponsible.”

Despite these and other concerns that the proposed repository might leak radioactivity, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has indicated that he intends to recommend to the president that the project move forward. A formal site recommendation is expected in early 2002. If the president refers the recommendation to Congress, as is likely, Nevada?s disapproval could be overridden by majority vote.

Although the DOE intends to issue a site recommendation within the next few months and the issue could come before Congress as early as next spring, the NRC?s review and the DOE?s own timeline both indicate that a license application could still be several years off. But the Nuclear Waste Policy Act specifies that if Congress approves a Yucca Mountain site recommendation, the DOE must submit a license application to the NRC within 90 days.

“Clearly the act intends that any site recommendation be based upon much more concrete proposals and thorough analyses than what the DOE has developed. A site recommendation at this stage would be premature at best,” Gue said.

The DOE will receive comments on its Yucca Mountain repository proposal in a supplemental public comment period that closes on Dec. 14, 2001.