Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

Currently: 87° — Complete forecast

No safety conclusions in report on nuclear dump

Yucca Mountain

File photo

Yucca Mountain is located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Yucca Mountain

The U.S. Energy Department plans to store spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, an extinct volcano about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission report released Thursday makes no conclusions about whether entombing the nation's most radioactive material at the Yucca Mountain site in the desert northwest of Las Vegas is scientifically sound or safe.

The federal oversight agency released a statement acknowledging that the 733-page technical evaluation includes no findings about whether the proposed Yucca Mountain repository meets regulatory requirements. It promised two more volumes before Sept. 30.

Nevada's top state official working to stop the Yucca Mountain project pointed to that date as the last day of the federal government's fiscal year and noted that federal money for the stalled project has been drying up.

Joseph Strolin, interim chief of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, labeled the report the product of "bias and inappropriate collusion" between federal nuclear regulators, Energy Department proponents, and scientists and contractors paid to plan and build the repository since the mid-1980s. Energy companies have also been waiting for the government to make good on a pledge to accept and dispose of the nation's spent nuclear reactor fuel.

"There's no legal requirement for this," Strolin said after an initial review of the report with state officials and lawyers working to block the Yucca project. "My impression is this is a creation of NRC staff frustrated and angry at not being able to finish their life's work."

Strolin noted the report contained no answers to more than 200 technical challenges Nevada still has pending in the stalled NRC Yucca Mountain licensing process.

A government scientist in charge of reviewing the safety of the Yucca Mountain site said it was important to release the report. A presidential commission is studying alternatives to Yucca Mountain, and it is important for panel members to be able to learn lessons from the project, said Aby Mohseni, acting director of high-level waste repository safety.

Members of Congress and the public also could benefit from the report, Mohseni said Thursday night.

"This represents what we have learned over 30 years," said Mohseni, who pushed for release of the report over the objections of more senior officials, including NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

Mohseni has accused Jaczko and other officials of using political pressure to manipulate the staff's scientific work on Yucca Mountain.

A spokesman for the NRC said the report was released after senior managers were assured that readers could accurately interpret the staff's technical assessment without drawing conclusion about policy changes or regulatory actions.

"In addition, the (report) is being issued so the staff can document its independent technical review of the application for knowledge capture and records preservation," NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said in an email.

Brenner said the report does not address any licensing or regulatory issues concerning Yucca Mountain, which has been in the planning stages for nearly three decades at an estimated cost of $15 billion. The planned dump has never been used.

In a statement, the NRC described the report as "part of the agency's orderly closeout of the Yucca Mountain license review process" and said it was "intended as a public record of the staff's scientific and technical work."

In 1982, Congress directed the Energy Department to study whether the ancient volcanic ridge was a good place for a repository. Plans call for entombing some 77,000 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel that's now stored at power plants and research facilities around the country.

President George W. Bush gave the go-ahead for the Yucca waste repository in 2002.

But opponents have continued to raise concerns about air, water and soil contamination. Nevada state officials and attorneys argue that the technology for storing radioactive material isn't fully proved, and that transporting waste to Nevada poses more risk than leaving it where it is.

The states of Washington and South Carolina, plus Aiken County, S.C., the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota, and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners want the NRC to order the project to proceed. They argue that Congress promised a place to put high-level radioactive waste from sites including the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington and the Savannah River site in South Carolina.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has remained a staunch foe of the Yucca project, and President Barack Obama reached the White House after promising to kill it.

Obama cut off funding and promoted Jaczko, a former Reid aide, to NRC chairman in 2009.

After an independent licensing board last year rejected the Obama administration's request to withdraw the project application, Jaczko instructed NRC staff to stop work on critical safety questions about possible groundwater contamination 10,000 years in the future and radiation releases for a million years.

Jaczko has yet to schedule a final vote on the matter by the five-member nuclear commission.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy