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Victory in Yucca Mountain Lawsuit; Court Overrules Government’s Lax Radiation Standards for Nuclear Waste

July 9, 2004

Victory in Yucca Mountain Lawsuit; Court Overrules Government’s Lax Radiation Standards for Nuclear Waste

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

Today’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) illegally set its radiation release standards for groundwater for the proposed high-level radioactive waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, marks a major victory for citizens of Nevada, for the environment and for science over politics.

The EPA set 10,000 years as the period during which radiation in the groundwater cannot exceed drinking water standards at the site’s boundary, but this time frame would not protect the health of future generations. As the court ruled, the Energy Policy Act requires that the EPA determine public health and safety standards for Yucca Mountain “based upon and consistent with” the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations. The Academy’s recommendation is that the compliance period should extend through the time of the peak risk for radiation doses from the repository, which studies show are likely to occur in 300,000 years or more. To compensate for Yucca’s geologic unsuitability, the EPA ignored the findings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It would have been one thing had EPA taken the Academy’s recommendations into account and then tailored a standard that accommodated the agency’s policy concerns. But that is not what EPA did,” the Court wrote in its ruling.  “Instead, it unabashedly rejected NAS’s findings, and then went on to promulgate a dramatically different standard, one that the Academy had expressly rejected.”

Given this ruling, the Yucca Mountain Project should be finished. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) must show that it can prevent groundwater contamination above drinking water standards at the compliance boundary for 300,000 years – a standard that the DOE’s own analysis shows the Yucca Mountain site cannot meet. The EPA faces the choice of either appealing the decision or revising its standard. The rules have been bent too often to promote Yucca Mountain. We will be watching closely to see if the EPA makes a wise choice and protects future generations, as the court mandated.

To read the court’s decision, click here.