NRC Rubber Stamps Changes in Siting Guidelines to Allow for Yucca Mountain Nuclear Dump

Oct. 24, 2001

NRC Rubber Stamps Changes in Siting Guidelines to Allow for Yucca Mountain Nuclear Dump

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? By concurring with proposed changes in siting guidelines for a nuclear waste repository in Nevada, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is agreeing to change the rules to fit the site ? a clear attempt to ensure the dump is approved despite its potential dangers, Public Citizen said today.

In a press release yesterday, the NRC announced concurrence with the Department of Energy?s (DOE) proposed changes in the siting guidelines for a repository at Yucca Mountain. The original DOE siting guidelines (Part 960 in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 10) would disqualify Yucca Mountain based on groundwater conditions. An aquifer beneath the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, which is the only source of drinking water for area residents, could become contaminated by radioactivity from the dump.

The proposed replacement rule (Part 963) would require compliance only with radiation protection standards established specifically for Yucca Mountain by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Public Citizen has criticized the EPA for setting a weak standard and is party to a lawsuit challenging this rule. The revised siting guidelines approved by the NRC would enable Yucca Mountain to be approved.

“The DOE and NRC are collaborating to change the rules of the game and allow the ill-conceived Yucca Mountain Project to move forward,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “These agencies are supposed to be protecting public health and safety, but it?s clear that they are more concerned with protecting the interests of the nuclear industry.”

The revised siting guidelines, which allow evaluation of the proposed repository site to be based on projected compliance with EPA standards rather than geologic characteristics, indicates a significant shift in the DOE?s interpretation of nuclear waste policy. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 favored geologic containment of nuclear waste, whereas current DOE repository design proposals rely heavily on storage containers (“engineered barriers”) to isolate the dangerous waste. However, projections of storage container performance over the very long periods that nuclear waste remains dangerously radioactive are uncertain because they involve predicting the containers? performance 10,000 years into the future using a limited amount of historical data.

NRC concurrence is required before the DOE?s changes to the siting guidelines are finalized, since the NRC has licensing jurisdiction over the proposed nuclear dump. However, under a licensing rule that establishes NRC?s regulations for evaluating DOE?s potential license application for the dump, the NRC lacks legal basis for concurring with the new siting guidelines. So now, the NRC is also in the process of changing the licensing rule. This means that the NRC concurrence is premature because the revised licensing rule is not yet final.

“The NRC is jumping the gun and abandoning due process,” said Hauter. “The agency?s proposed revisions to its repository licensing rule have not yet been printed in the Federal Register and therefore cannot be considered final.”

The latest version of the NRC?s proposed changes to the licensing rule has not been publicly available since the NRC dismantled most of its Web site on Oct. 11.

Yucca Mountain, located 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nev., is the only site under consideration for development as a high-level nuclear waste repository. The proposed repository would contain 77,000 tons of radioactive waste from commercial nuclear reactors and the DOE weapons complex.

Since the geology at Yucca Mountain cannot isolate the waste, the question is when ? not if ? the proposed repository would leak,” said Hauter. “Why, then, are we continuing to throw money at this project that will cost billions of dollars, endanger communities along nuclear waste shipment routes in 45 states, and contaminate yet another site with high-level nuclear waste? The DOE should disqualify Yucca Mountain under the original siting guidelines and abandon the repository project.”