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September 22, 2019

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A real nowhere bill

Latest Republican tactic to revive Yucca Mountain gives irresponsibility a new meaning

One reason the federal plan to bury high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is moribund is because the science proving that it would be safe does not exist.

That presents a major problem for the Energy Department, which is intent upon submitting a license application for Yucca Mountain to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by June 30.

Six Republican senators introduced a bill Thursday that would solve that problem for the Energy Department by essentially taking science off the table.

Under the bill, Yucca Mountain could be licensed for the first 300 years if the NRC “determines that there is a reasonable expectation that the health and safety of the public will be adequately protected.”

Only after 300 years have elapsed would scientists have to set a standard for how much radiation could escape the mountain for the duration of the waste’s lethal life, which would be at least 300,000 years.

We anticipated such a bill in 2004, after a federal court ruling.

The court found that the Energy Department had been obligated to follow the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences in setting a radiation standard. The Academy had said the waste should be shielded enough, from the moment of burial, to protect the outside environment during the peak life of its deadly radiation — several hundred thousand years.

At the time, however, the Energy Department was trying, unsuccessfully, to prove the waste would be safe for 10,000 years. But the court left the department an out — it would withdraw its ruling if Congress would lift the requirement that the department take direction from the Academy.

That’s what this bill is intended to accomplish — substitute the Academy’s scientific ruling with a judgment call by the NRC. The bill, whose main sponsor is Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, gives the words “reckless” and “irresponsible” new meanings.

Fortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the state’s leader in the fight against Yucca Mountain, is the one who will see that this bill goes where it belongs, which is nowhere.

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