Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Process Lacks Integrity

Dec. 14, 2000

Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Process Lacks Integrity

Statement of Lisa Gue, Policy Analyst, Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program,?to the National Academy of Sciences Board on Radioactive Waste Management

We are greatly disturbed by the manner in which the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is assessing the suitability of Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, for a high-level nuclear waste repository. A memo has come to light showing that the agency — which is responsible for making and executing energy policies that are in the public interest — is in fact going out of its way to help the nuclear industry dump its waste at the site of its choosing. This lack of impartiality by a government agency is highly improper, and we urge the board to exert as much pressure as it can to stop it.

The DOE is preparing to recommend Yucca Mountain, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nev., as a permanent disposal site for radioactive waste generated by atomic weapons facilities and commercial nuclear reactors across the country. If the proposal is approved, 70,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste will be transported through 43 states for burial in Nevada.

Currently, the agency is assessing the suitability of Yucca Mountain for the repository. The agency is required to maintain impartiality during this process and withstand pressure from the nuclear industry, which sees the repository as a convenient way to get rid of its waste and transfer liability for it to the government.

A document recently discussed in a Las Vegas Sun article clearly points to DOE bias in favor of the industry. The document — a memo attached to an overview of a DOE report — indicates that the overview is designed to help industry lobbyists win support for the Yucca Mountain proposal in Congress.

This “smoking gun” evidence of industry bias within the DOE is extremely discouraging to members of the public who have participated in good faith in the various hearings and comment periods required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. It now appears that public participation has been solicited merely to lend legitimacy to a process in which the selection of Yucca Mountain is a foregone conclusion.

The memo isn t the only thing indicating that the selection of Yucca Mountain is fast becoming a done deal. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and DOE have been trying to resolve so-called “key technical issues” to obtain a license for a Yucca Mountain repository, even though the DOE has not received the necessary congressional approval to apply for a license.

In a similarly inappropriate display of premature confidence, the overview report written about by the Sun outlines the basis for a DOE recommendation of the Yucca Mountain repository. Yet many steps are to be taken before the DOE embarks on this phase of the selection process. For instance, DOE s recommendation is supposed to be contingent on regulations that have not been finalized — most notably proposed changes to DOE site suitability guidelines and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency s radiation protection standards. Likewise, environmental impact statement for Yucca Mountain is not scheduled to be issued until late next spring.

Further proof that the government intends to approve the Yucca Mountain site lies in a proposal by a private consortium called Private Fuel Storage to open an interim waste storage facility in Utah. In the consortium s draft environmental impact statement, the NRC explicitly assumes that waste will eventually be transferred to Yucca Mountain. In protest, Public Citizen has joined environmental and public interest groups across the country in calling for President Clinton to issue an executive order preventing the licensing of a private fuel storage facility.

We urge this board to recognize these clear signs of pro-industry bias within the DOE, because they seriously undermine the integrity of the Yucca Mountain site characterization process. In light of this board s advisory role to Congress, we urge board members to press for closer oversight of DOE. The public cannot be expected to have confidence in a process conducted by an agency that so obviously fails to maintain impartiality.