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Controversy Over Nevada Mountain : Monument to Atomic Age: Dump for Nuclear Waste

Times Staff Writer

Standing amid the pale green sagebrush that carpets the hard desert floor 100 miles northwest of here is a mountain with a monumental mission. If all goes as planned, in the year 2003 this barren rock bordering the Nevada Test Site will become a mausoleum for the legacy of the Atomic Age: nuclear waste.

The goal is to bury spent fuel from commercial reactors and waste from weapons plants deep in the womb of Yucca Mountain, which in theory would imprison the deadly radioactive cargo for 10,000 years. Federal officials say the mountain’s geology and location in a remote, arid region make it a promising choice for the nation’s first high-level nuclear dump.

But others are not sure that Yucca Mountain is up to the task.

There are nagging questions, for example, about the threat earthquakes pose to the stability of the mountain, which rests astride an area crisscrossed by faults. And some scientists are dubious about predictions that little if any moisture would percolate down through the rock and breach the subterranean vault, where it could corrode the steel waste canisters and usher radioactive material into the water table.

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Although the U.S. Department of Energy is months away from launching formal studies to judge the mountain’s environmental fitness for the job, a mushrooming group of skeptics is already questioning the agency’s performance as manager.

Among the critics are officials with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as well as the Nevada state government, which fiercely opposes the dump and contends that the department is bent on collecting only data that basks the mountain in a favorable light.

“It is our opinion that DOE decided on Yucca Mountain in 1979 without any supporting data and has done nothing since but collect evidence that bolsters its case,” said Robert Loux, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office. “Their approach has been, ‘If we run into a problem, we’ll just engineer around it.’ Well, our feeling is, the jury’s still out on this site.”

Even a member of the Department of Energy’s scientific team has raised a red flag. Jerry Szymanski, who believes Yucca Mountain is ill-suited for its proposed role as a $30-billion nuclear waste tomb, said the department’s strategy for evaluating the site could result in “a lot of misdirected effort and wasted time.”

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Dwindling Storage Space

Meanwhile, the nuclear utilities, whose ratepayers have contributed nearly $4 billion toward construction of the underground dump, are losing patience. Most of the nation’s nuclear power plants are running out of temporary storage space for the dangerous waste, and restless operators are dismayed by delays that have plagued the Department of Energy’s work at Yucca Mountain.

Department officials vigorously defend their program and insist that they do not want to bury nuclear waste beneath Yucca Mountain if it is unsafe. Even if that was the department’s agenda, officials argue, the myriad agencies and committees looking over their shoulder would not let it happen.

“This is the most carefully monitored program I’ve ever seen undertaken by the federal government,” said Carl Gertz, Yucca Mountain project manager. “Based on our information so far, it is a safe site. But we are far, far away from knowing that for sure. . . . Only hard science will determine that with any confidence.”

If Yucca Mountain passes muster after $2 billion worth of studies spanning seven years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be asked to issue a license for the waste repository. Should that occur, many believe the United States will have solved one of the greatest technical challenges of our time: how to permanently isolate radioactivity from the biosphere.

Since the Nuclear Age began more than 40 years ago, billions of dollars have been spent in the quest for a way to safely dispose of the deadly radioactive byproduct piling up at bomb-making plants and commercial nuclear reactors. Firing the waste into space, tucking it between polar ice sheets and burying it beneath the tectonic plates of the ocean are options that have been examined.

On the Short List

Experts ultimately settled on the idea of entombing the poisonous waste deep in a mined repository, and from the start, Yucca Mountain was on everybody’s short list of potential sites.

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In 1986, the Department of Energy was directed to study three sites--Yucca Mountain, Deaf Smith County, Tex., and Hanford, Wash.--to determine which was best suited as dump host. But that approach was criticized as too costly and politically challenging, and in late 1987 Congress abruptly scrapped the Texas and Washington sites and zeroed in on Yucca Mountain.

Nevadans, whose four congressional representatives at the time were freshmen with little clout, refer to the action as the “Screw Nevada Bill.”

To the casual observer, Yucca Mountain appears an inviting spot for a nuclear waste graveyard. Long, lumpy and the color of a Weimaraner’s hide, it is nothing if not remote. From atop the mountain’s spine, the only visible signs of life are contrails left by pilots from nearby Nellis Air Force Base and a dirt road that meanders across the lonely Amargosa Valley.

In addition, the mountain is bordered by the 1,350-square-mile Nevada Test Site. Thus, much of the region’s acreage already has been spoiled by the 689 announced underground weapons explosions conducted at the site to date. Also attractive to government planners is the relatively sympathetic local population, which is familiar with things nuclear and has long relied on the Department of Energy as an employer.

Mountain’s Selling Points

Federal officials say Yucca Mountain has some other important virtues as well. The region is dry, receiving just six inches of rain in an average year, and Department of Energy scientists predict that less than 5% of the rainfall soaks into the mountain. If that scenario proves correct, it dilutes the threat that water might dissolve the waste and flow in a poisonous stream into the water table.

Finally, Department of Energy officials favor Yucca Mountain because it is formed of layers of volcanic ash called tuff which contains minerals capable of removing radioactive particles from water.

The steel canisters containing the waste are expected to last from 300 to 1,000 years. After that, the rock itself must prevent radioactive leakage from reaching settlements for 10,000 years, when most of the radioactive elements will have decayed.

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While surveys show that most Nevadans oppose the waste dump, some residents figure that it is a gamble worth taking. Robert Dickinson is one of them.

Dickinson is a Las Vegas businessman who heads the Nevada Nuclear Waste Study Committee, a group with ties to the nuclear power industry. In an interview, he said the dangers associated with radioactivity have been vastly exaggerated, called opponents of the repository “anti-everything” and suggested that skeptical scientists like the Department of Energy’s Szymanski are disloyal rabble-rousers.

‘Political Hysteria’

“This thing has been clouded by political hysteria, and we think that the more Nevadans learn about what it really is, the more they will say, ‘Is that all? Let’s get on with it,’ ” Dickinson said. “Our politicians are doing the state a real disservice in the name of political heroics.”

Dickinson believes the repository could be a magnet for other nuclear-related technologies and help Nevada diversify its economy, which is heavily reliant on gambling. And he believes that if officials would abandon their “political puffery” and instead cut a deal with the federal government, Nevada could reel in some significant economic benefits as well. If the state agrees to the dump, he noted, it stands to receive $10 million a year during construction and another $20 million annually once it begins operation.

“This site is an isolated area 100 miles from anywhere,” Dickinson said. “It gets four inches of rain. It’s next to a test site where we’ve exploded 700 atomic devices. If it’s safe, I say let’s get on with it.”

But skeptics say Yucca Mountain’s drawbacks are many, including more than 30 active earthquake faults nearby. The Ghost Dance Fault, for example, cuts through the heart of the dump site. The presence of several volcanic cones just west of the mountain is also troubling to some. Research on one, the Lathrop Wells cinder cone, indicates it may have erupted as recently as 6,000 years ago--suggesting the likelihood of future volcanic events.

Although Department of Energy officials are not concerned with the impact fault movement would have on the repository, earthquakes could cause significant damage to surface facilities that will serve as temporary way stations for the waste. As for volcanic activity, government scientists said it is unlikely eruptions would disturb the waste dump.

Other worries relate to the neighboring weapons test site and what effect bomb explosions might have on the mountain. But the Department of Energy’s Gertz calls that a “non-issue,” arguing that the repository would weather any tremors “like a grape in Jello.”

Debate Over Water

Perhaps the most lively and crucial debate is over water--namely, how fast it is likely to travel from the surface to the repository and beyond. Resolving this question is key to determining how soon water might dissolve the waste and carry radioactive atoms into ground water supplies.

Department of Energy scientists believe most of the rainfall at Yucca Mountain evaporates, while the balance seeps slowly downward through pores in the rock. If they are correct, it would take thousands of years for moisture both to penetrate to the depth of the waste canisters and move onward into the water table. Under that scenario, the mountain likely would meet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s requirements for licensing.

Hydrologists working for the state, however, suspect that water instead runs through fractures in the rock, meaning its rate of travel would be much quicker--and might even be measured in months.

“The trouble with this fractured tuff is that it’s very unpredictable, complex and difficult to characterize,” said Martin Mifflin, a Las Vegas hydrologist and consultant for the state. “The DOE is basing its figures on a lot of wishful thinking. Their posture that Yucca Mountain might be a suitable site is based on a lot of assumptions, which are not verified and are not conservative ones.”

Then there is Department of Energy scientist Szymanski’s theory. He believes that a conspiracy of natural events at Yucca Mountain could cause the water table to rise and flood the waste repository, possibly leading to the expulsion of radioactive water at ground level.

He has urged the department to investigate his concerns and other potential show-stoppers quickly or risk losing the public support it needs to succeed with the repository project.

“If this is a lemon, I say let’s find out now and get the hell out of there,” Szymanski said in a recent interview in his Las Vegas office.

So far, however, Department of Energy managers have declined to alter their study program. “I think we’ve taken Jerry very seriously and have incorporated many studies to try to ascertain what he’s after,” Gertz said. But “I don’t agree with those who say we should just look at the potential disqualifiers and put off everything else.”

Critics have charged that the Department of Energy, like a parent who suspects his child is on drugs but fears the truth, is avoiding scientific inquiries that might raise doubt about Yucca Mountain’s suitability.

Document Cited

Gertz disputed this charge, noting that the department recently released a 6,300-page document outlining plans to sink two exploratory shafts into the mountain later this year and create an “underground laboratory” to determine whether the site is safe.

“No decision has been made on this site yet,” Gertz said. And Szymanski said he does not see “the dark forces” many critics believe are at work.

But despite such assurances, state officials say the department’s record of managing the nation’s weapon production facilities does not inspire confidence. With the country’s three primary bomb-building operations closed for safety reasons and faced with an estimated $81-billion cleanup, the department’s credibility may be at an all-time low.

“I grew up as a child in Las Vegas, and I remember well the DOE’s predecessor suggesting it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go out on the flats and see the flash from above-ground weapons blasts,” Nevada Gov. Bob Miller said in an interview. “I would suggest that was a poor recommendation, and I’m not convinced they are any better prepared to give us scientific certainty about the safety of below-ground storage.”

Even U.S. Energy Secretary James D. Watkins charged during his Senate confirmation hearings that managers of the department’s weapons plants too often sacrificed public safety in an effort to protect secrecy and meet production goals.

And last spring, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission called the Department of Energy’s quality assurance program at Yucca Mountain inadequate and said much of the data collected during 10 years of studies there would be useless for Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing. Specifically, 50,000 feet of core samples taken from the rock cannot be used because the Department of Energy cannot document from what depth they came.

‘Poor Quality Assurance’

“They didn’t have adequate planning or record keeping . . . and what it results in is some doubts about the data, how it was obtained, and so forth,” said Robert M. Bernero, director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards. “The problem with poor quality assurance is you’ve wasted effort, but worse yet . . . people without good strict discipline can end up ruining the site.”

Gertz acknowledged the problem but said the core samples were collected in “scoping studies” and were “not necessarily intended for use in licensing procedures.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has also charged that the Department of Energy’s proposed site investigation was “too narrowly focused,” Bernero said. The commission felt the department was failing to “take into account alternative hypotheses” and “might not be keeping an open mind,” he said.

Another blow came in August when 16 scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey complained in a stinging memo that the Department of Energy was barring them from performing research critical to deciding whether the site is suitable. The memo suggested that the department was interested only in data that would get the repository built.

In “subjugating the technical program to satisfy DOE political objectives, we may succeed in making the program comply with regulations, while being scientifically indefensible,” the scientists wrote.

Gertz said the Geological Survey researchers were stalled because they failed to meet quality assurance standards, adding that the Department of Energy “merely wants to ensure the documentation of their work.” Tony Buono, a Geological Survey scientist who did not sign the memo, agreed and said his colleagues are “just not accustomed to the rigorous oversight inherent in this project.”

In recent months, the nuclear power industry has joined the chorus of critics. Utility customers pour $400 million annually into a fund that will pay for disposal of nuclear waste. With delays already postponing the estimated opening of the repository for five years, operators at many of the nation’s 114 commercial plants have been forced to expand facilities for storing the deadly waste on their property--an expensive undertaking shouldered by consumers.

‘Getting More and More Behind’

“We’re very concerned that the DOE has spent $2 billion of our money already and just seems to be getting more and more behind,” said Diane Smiroldo, a spokeswoman for the Edison Electric Institute.

State officials and others lobbying against the repository believe that in the end they will prevail in the battle over Yucca Mountain.

Sen. Richard Bryan, who as governor fought doggedly against locating the dump in his state, noted that Nevada’s congressional delegation is for the first time unified in its opposition to the project. Gone are the days when the state’s Washington representatives suggested that Nevadans had a “patriotic duty” to host the facility.

Momentum is also building in the Nevada Legislature. Last month, lawmakers approved two resolutions declaring their opposition to the dump and killed plans for a committee to negotiate with federal officials over economic bonuses Nevada could reap if Yucca Mountain is selected. Several lawsuits against the U.S. government are pending as well.

“The scientific community that supports waste disposal at Yucca Mountain is suffering from a huge case of hubris,” said Bob Fulkerson of Citizen Alert, a 1,320-member activist group based in Reno. “It’s just a matter of time before the gods strike them down and we win.”

A Mountain Home For Radioactive Waste

The Department of Energy wants to bury 70,000 metric tons of deadly waste from commerical reactors and weapons plants 1,000 feet under Yucca Mountain. A 116-mile grid of tunnels would house the repository. Waste would come by truck or rail for 26 years, then the site would be sealed.

The Pros. . .

The Yucca Mountain site has a natural advantage because it is formed of tuff-layers of volcanic ash that spouted from nearby volcanoes more than 13 million years ago. The tuff contains zeolites, minerals capable of removing radioactive particles from water. Zeolites act like a strainer, allowing water to pass but trapping larger radioactive particles.

. . .And the Cons

Federal officials say Yucca Mountain’s geology and its remote, dry location make it a good choice. But others are not so sure . Questions have been raised about the mountain’s stability because earthquake faults run through it. There also is concern about possible volcanic activity in the area. And some scientists worry that moisture might seep through the rock to the storage vault, where it could corrode the waste canisters. If this scenario occurred, it could introduce radioactive materials into the water table, which stretches across the California border to Death Valley National Moument, 25 miles to the west.


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