The former head of a federal project to build a nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada said yesterday that U.S. officials have known since 1995 that the site's geologic features would not adequately protect groundwater and air from potential radioactive pollution.
John W. Bartlett, an engineer who headed the Department of Energy project from 1990 to 1993, said the proposed site's rock formations were found to be "far inferior to that originally expected" in terms of preventing contamination. DOE's response, he said, has been to shift its reliance almost totally to man-made canisters -- an emphasis that undermines the need for a remote mountain burial site in the first place.
Energy Department officials strongly disputed Bartlett's assertion, saying they continue to support an approach dependent on both natural and engineered barriers. They noted that Bartlett is a $150 per hour consultant to the state of Nevada, which opposes the project.
"DOE followed the intent of Congress, the regulations put forward by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the opinion of the scientific community as a whole in saying that man-made and natural barriers would ensure that we could protect the public if we built [the facility at] Yucca Mountain," said Joe Davis, a DOE spokesman. "Mr. Bartlett's accusation . . . is wrong."
Yesterday's dust-up underscores the intensity of the long-running controversy over efforts to make Yucca Mountain a permanent tomb for spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants throughout the nation. Such waste now is stored in enclosed pools near the plants, a temporary solution that could hamper efforts to revive and expand the nuclear power industry.
In ordering the Energy Department to begin studying Yucca Mountain as the repository site in 1982, Congress specified that the decision should be based largely on geologic characteristics. The goal was to isolate nuclear waste safely for thousands of years. But Congress authorized a subsequent review beginning in 1992 to bring the rules governing the proposed site in line with tougher standards imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. In December, DOE announced it had changed its rules to rely on a combination of advanced storage containers and natural geologic barriers to satisfy new, rigorous environmental standards.
Bartlett charged in an affidavit released yesterday that DOE retroactively changed its so-called site suitability rules to rely entirely on man-made waste canisters to meet the repository licensing requirements of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"Geological isolation cannot and will not play any significant role whatsoever at the Yucca Mountain repository during the regulatory compliance period," Bartlett said in the affidavit, provided to The Washington Post. "The project has become simply an array of engineered waste packages that happen to be located 1,000 feet underground."
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham concluded last month that the proposed project, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas in the Nevada desert, was "scientifically sound and suitable" as a repository. He said he would recommend that President Bush authorize construction and seek the necessary license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The move pits the administration and its allies in the nuclear power and manufacturing industries against the Nevada political establishment, environmental groups and Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who has vowed to block the project. The administration says a permanent burial site is essential to consolidate nuclear waste stockpiles that could be targeted by terrorists.
Nevada officials say there is overwhelming scientific evidence that the government cannot safely store 77,000 tons of radioactive waste beneath Yucca Mountain without groundwater being contaminated by long-term leaching.
Last week, scientists on an independent nuclear waste advisory panel meeting in Nevada said there were enormous gaps in what the Energy Department knew about the site and about the high-tech canisters it proposes for storage. Officials said research on how well the mountain and the waste containers would isolate the radioactive materials would continue for as long as the repository was open, which could be 300 years.
Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn (R) plans to meet with Bush on Thursday to argue against moving ahead with the project.
Bartlett is the most prominent former DOE official to publicly declare the proposed site unsuitable. .
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