Public Citizen Condemns Bush Administration Attempts to Weaken Public Health and Safety Laws for Yucca Mountain

April 13, 2006

Public Citizen Condemns Bush Administration Attempts to Weaken Public Health and Safety Laws for Yucca  Mountain 

Secretary Bodman Will Visit Site Today to Tout Legislation That Would Speed Construction of the Controversial Nuclear Dump

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Samuel Bodman will visit Yucca Mountain in Nevada today to support new legislation from the Bush administration that would undermine public health and safety to accelerate the licensing and operation of a nuclear waste dump there.

The “Nuclear Fuel Management and Disposal Act” (S. 2589) was introduced in the Senate last week by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and would eliminate health and safety laws and regulations for licensing and operating the site. It would also give the DOE unfettered access to utilities’ ratepayer fees while removing limits on the amount of nuclear waste to be buried at the dump.

The bill’s most egregious provisions would:

  • Abolish state, local and tribal government transportation authority over the shipment of nuclear waste by rail, highway and barge from around the country to the dump site, and give all authority to the DOE, in contradiction to a recent National Academy of Sciences report that advocated a central role for state and tribal governments;
  • Exempt the Yucca site, as well as potentially all DOE sites, from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, thereby allowing hundreds of millions of pounds of hazardous heavy metals from waste containers to contaminate groundwater used for drinking and irrigation;
  • Waive state and local air quality laws for the site;
  • Remove limits on the amount of nuclear waste that can legally be stored at the Yucca dump, which is currently set at 70,000 metric tons;
  • Reclassify the Nuclear Waste Fund, which is collected from electricity ratepayers for nuclear waste disposal, to ensure a dedicated source of funding for the project despite a long history of waste, fraud and mismanagement by the DOE and its contractors;
  • Codify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) “waste confidence rule” into law, stating that there will be a dump for spent fuel “in a timely manner,” thereby politicizing what should be a scientific and technical determination and enabling the building of new plants; and,
  • Allow the DOE to change the site design even after the NRC issues a construction license according to a specific design.

While the DOE seeks to use this legislation to speed construction and double the capacity of the dump, Yucca Mountain is mired in scientific fraud and mismanagement. In March 2005, U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) scientists were accused of falsifying data on the rate of water infiltration and the climate at the Yucca site. Faster water movement would cause radioactive waste to enter the groundwater, which is used for drinking and irrigation. The inspectors general of both the DOE and USGS are currently investigating, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation has initiated a criminal inquiry.

In January 2006, the NRC issued a scathing report of an audit by Yucca’s main contractor, Bechtel SAIC LLC. The NRC found that researchers overestimated the ability of metals to isolate nuclear waste in engineered containers, which prompted the DOE to issue a stop work order on all container research. Despite other serious problems with quality assurance and design control practices, the DOE extended Bechtel’s contract for another year, with an option for a second year.

“The bill introduced in the Senate is yet another example of the DOE trying to force a square peg into a round hole. The DOE’s incompetence and mismanagement should not be rewarded by a loosening of public health and safety laws and regulations or by ensuring a steady stream of money for the project from the Nuclear Waste Fund,” said Michele Boyd, legislative director of Public Citizen’s energy program. “Instead, Congress should stop the Yucca Mountain project. It should also convene an independent investigation of scientific fraud in research at the site and the waste of taxpayers’ money that has plagued this project for 20 years.”

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