Magazine article Science News

Fallout over Nevada's Nuclear Destiny: Plans to Bury Highly Radioactive Wastes Reignite the Silver State

Magazine article Science News

Fallout over Nevada's Nuclear Destiny: Plans to Bury Highly Radioactive Wastes Reignite the Silver State

Article excerpt

Fallout Over Nevada's Nuclear Destiny

"We've solved the nuclear waste problem," declared Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) two years ago when Congress instructed the Department of Energy to consider permanently interring the nation's high-level nuclear wastes within Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

Now, Johnston isn't so sure about that, and many others echo his uncertainty.

In late November, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced dramatic revisions in its plans for site analysis and preconstruction testing at Yucca Mountain and in its long-term schedule for interring wastes. Though Congress had ordered the federal government to begin accepting high-level radioactive wastes by 1998 for disposal at a yet-undetermined site, DOE now says it cannot offer a permanent storage vault until 2010 at the earliest. And even that prospect rests on the suitability of the Nevada site, where wastes would lie buried 1,200 feet below the surface. If the site proves unacceptable or unavailable, forcing DOE to look elsewhere, department officials say the earliest date for beginning permanent burial will slip well beyond 2010.

Indeed, if Nevada has its way, the department will have to scout out a new gravesite soon. DOE applied two years ago for state permits to begin preliminary testing at Yucca Mountain, and though such permits normally take 75 days to obtain, Nevada officials have yet to process even one. In November, DOE asked the Justice Department to bring suit against the state over the holdup, perhaps as early as this week. But Nevada Governor Bob Miller says he has no intention of issuing those permits -- ever.

Hanging in the balance is the fate of the nation's most dangerous garbage: some 95 million gallons of highly radioactive wastes generated at the nation's defense facilities and used fuel from defense and commercial nuclear reactors. Electric utilities running the nation's 110 nuclear power plants are likely to feel the pinch first and worst. Some could even face plant closings as a result.

With no licensed facility available to accept their wastes, utilities have been storing their spent fuel on-site, mostly in huge, heat-dissipating structures nicknamed "swimming pools." But their current stockpiles of radioactive roads -- totaling some 15,000 to 20,000 metric tons -- are expected to double within the next decade, notes Steven P. Kraft, director of nuclear waste and transportation for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, D.C. And with the storage pools already nearing capacity at several utilities, many commercial power generators are exploring other options, such as dry storage. Though less expensive than pool storage, dry storage could cost tens of millions of dollars per utility, Kraft says.

The nuclear power industry's most serious worry is that the lack of visible progress in fuel disposal will jeopardize its very existence. A federal regulation known as the waste-confidence rule specifies that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can actually shut down plants if it cannot ascertain that the government has an ongoing waste-disposal program, Kraft explains.

"If there was a brief that the DOE program for examining Yucca Mountain was not moving forward, you would probably start seeing action within a year or so by individuals trying to get their local [nuclear power] plant shut down," says Kraft. And at least one state, California, has a statute prohibiting the licensing of any new nuclear plant until the nation's waste-disposal problem is solved.

In a Nov. 14 letter to Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, Miller asserts that scientific analyses by his state indicate Yucca Mountain fails to meet several key qualifying criteria for entombing radioactive waste. Moreover, the governor argues, because Nevada's legislature has "lawfully vetoed" the proposed facility, DOE's authority "to pursue the Yucca Mountain site as a nuclear waste repository has terminated. …

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