MAC: Mines and Communities

Million Year Yucca Mountain Safety Standards Proposed

Published by MAC on 2005-08-09
Source: Environmental News Service

Million Year Yucca Mountain Safety Standards Proposed

August 9, 2005

Environmental News Service (ENS)

WASHINGTON, DC, - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing public health standards for the planned high-level radioactive waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada that the agency says will protect public health for one million years. If built, the facility would contain 77,000 tons of nuclear waste from U.S. nuclear power plants and weapons production facilities across the country.

The EPA issued standards in 2001 that are supposed to protect the public from the nation's highly radioactive waste for 10,000 years. The standards proposed today retain and add to these original standards issued in 2001.

The new standards are required as the result of a July 2004 ruling by the DC Court of Appeals in a lawsuit brought by the state of Nevada. The court ruled that the EPA's original standards did not conform to those recommended by the National Academy of Sciences as Congress mandates in the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The Academy said the most dangerous peak radiation levels from nuclear waste isotopes would persist for 300,000 years.

"It is an unprecedented scientific challenge to develop proposed standards today that will protect the next 25,000 generations of Americans," EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Jeffrey Holmstead said. "EPA met this challenge by using the best available scientific approaches and has issued a standard that will protect public health for a million years."

The EPA says that under the new one million year standards, people living close to the facility would not receive total radiation higher than natural levels of background radiation people experience routinely in other areas of the country.

For the first 10,000 years, the proposed standards: Retain the original 15 millirem of radiation exposure per year individual protection standard. By comparison, 15 millirem is equivalent to the radiation exposure of a passenger who took three coast to coast round trip flights in a year. Ensure that people living near Yucca Mountain are protected to the same level as those living near the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico , currently the only operational deep geologic radioactive waste disposal facility in the U.S.

From 10,000 years up to one million years, the proposed standards: Add a limit of 350 millirem per year. Limit the maximum radiation from the facility so that people living close to Yucca Mountain for a lifetime during the one million year time frame will not receive total radiation any higher than natural levels people currently live with in other areas of the country. The University of California - Davis gives 300 millirem as the average yearly dose of background radiation to which people in the United States are exposed.

U.S. Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and Senate Minority Leader, said, "I am astounded that the EPA actually put those recommendations on paper. What the agency released today is nothing more than voodoo science and arbitrary numbers. At the time when the public faces the highest risk of radiation exposure, EPA proposes easing the overall public health standard, including throwing out the groundwater standard."

The EPA states in its new standards document that, "The groundwater protection standards were a subject of the Court decision, were upheld, and are not a subject of today's proposal."

There are two major aquifers beneath Yucca Mountain. Regional ground water in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain is believed to flow generally in a south-southeasterly direction. The DOE plans to build the repository about 300 meters below the surface and about 300 to 500 meters above the water table. Senator Reid is still opposed to the Yucca Mountain project.

"This is the latest attempt by the Bush Administration to ignore sound science and disregard the health and safety of Nevadans, and I vow to continue fighting on behalf of Nevadans against this ill-conceived project."

The EPA will accept written public comment for 60 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register. The agency will also hold public hearings during the comment period.

But Senator Reid says the public comment period is inadequate. "In addition to risking the health of the public, EPA is also trying to silence voices of opposition by limiting the comment period," he said "It took EPA more than a year to put together this proposal, but the agency is giving the public less than two months to review hundreds of pages of documents and put their concerns on record."

Reid and fellow Nevada Senator John Ensign, a Republican, wrote in a joint letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson on Monday, "The comment period for this proposal must be no less than 180 days." The senators wrote that evaluation of the EPA standard "may depend on assessments in DOE's draft license application that to date DOE has been unwilling to provide. Nevadans may not be in a position to respond fully to the EPA rule until DOE releases this key information."

The Nevada senators reminded Johnson of the EPA's agreement to hold a public hearing in Las Vegas and urged him to attend in person "so that you can hear and see the depth of Nevadans' opposition to a weak radiation standard that does not meet the National Academy of Sciences guidelines, thus needlessly exposing them to public health risks."

Congress authorized three federal agencies to perform different functions related to Yucca Mountain. EPA sets standards to protect human health and safety, and the Yucca Mountain facility will open only if it meets EPA's standards to protect human health and the environment. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is responsible for implementing EPA's standards and determining if the Yucca Mountain facility can be safe enough to contain nuclear waste. The Department of Energy owns, constructs, applies for licenses, and will operate the facility, should it be approved.

Under the new proposed standards, the Department of Energy (DOE) is required conduct analyses covering a one million year time frame to assess the potential effects of natural processes or disruptive events that could affect how well Yucca Mountain contains the waste.

These include:
Earthquakes, which could affect the facility tunnels and breakdown of the waste containers
Volcanic activity, which could affect the waste containers directly or cause releases of radionuclides to the environment
Climate change, which could cause increased water flow through the facility, resulting in the release of radionuclides to the environment
Corrosion processes, which could cause breakdown of the waste containers

In its new standards document, the EPA emphasizes how difficult it is to accurately predict what conditions will be like for long periods of time into the future.

"Clearly, we believe that calculations beyond 10,000 years have value, or we would not have previously required DOE to include them in its EIS [environmental impact statement]. However, we also believe that over the very long periods leading up to the time of the peak dose, the uncertainties in projecting climatic and geologic conditions become extremely difficult to reliably predict and a technical consensus about their effects on projected performance in a licensing process would be very difficult, or perhaps impossible, to achieve."

This is one of the major reasons that the 10,000 year time frame was originally selected in the generic standard for land disposal of the types of waste intended for the Yucca Mountain repository, the EPA document explains.

The EPA relies on the concept of "reasonable expectation" to rescue the situation from the dilemma that the uncertainties create - either giving little or no weight to highly uncertain projections as a basis for a licensing decision - or - precluding the possibility of licensing at all.

"We believe that the performance projections at Yucca Mountain, if constructed and interpreted consistent with the concept of "reasonable expectation," can provide useful information on the facility's performance and can form a key part of the basis for a licensing decision," the EPA says.

The agency cites the opinion of National Academy of Sciences in its report, "No analysis of compliance will ever constitute an absolute proof; the objective instead is a reasonable level of confidence in analyses that indicates whether limits established by the standard will be exceeded."

The Yucca Mountain site was approved by Congress and President George W. Bush signed the bill into law in February 2002. However, the site is still opposed by the State of Nevada and the Nevada Congressional delegation.

Plans are to transport the waste by road and rail from the power plants and Department of Defense sites where it is stored through 44 states to Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Reid says this is perhaps the most dangerous part of the project. "The Achilles heel of the Yucca Mountain proposal is transportation," the senator says on his website. "The tragic events of September 11, 2001 showed us what terrorists can do. Transporting thousands of shipments across our country would provide thousands of targets for terrorists, and putting the millions of Americans along the transportation routes in danger is irresponsible."

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