The Energy Department's plan for burial of hot reactor fuel at Yucca Mountain cannot be defended scientifically. The site near Las Vegas does not meet the original requirements for deep geologic disposal-come-dispersal.
In a 1998 study, the Energy Department (DOE) itself acknowledged that the proposed site is a fractured, leaky mountain plagued by earthquakes and that the DOE's untested waste containers have limited viability.
If Yucca begins operation, tons of radioactive waste on trucks and trains will be passing through 43 states for 25 years. The planned routes would take the waste through 100 cities with populations of 100,000-plus.
The scheme recommended by the DOE doesn't begin to address the nuclear waste problem -- it merely transfers the waste's liability to the public, and the radiation risk to Nevada and to the almost 138 million people living along proposed transport routes.
Yucca Mt. should have been disqualified already:
- In 1999, proof that the site is periodically flooded, came from Zircon crystals found deep inside. "Crystals do not from without complete immersion in water," said Jerry Szymanski, formerly DOE's top geologist."That would mean hot underground water has invaded the mountain and might again in the time when radioactive waste would still be extremely dangerous. The results would be catastrophic."
- In 1998, the Yucca site was found to be subject to earthquakes or lava flows 10 times more frequently than earlier estimated. This finding means radiation dispersal from the site is much more likely during the proposed 10,000-year lifetime of the dump -- not to mention the million-year-long radioactive hazard period.
- In 1997, the DOE's own researchers announced that rainwater had seeped 800 feet into the repository in a mere 40 years. The government had earlier claimed that it would take water hundreds or thousands of years to reach the waste, and guidelines have long held that fast-flowing water would disqualify the site.
- In 1995, a Los Alamos National Laboratory report dropped a bomb on the Yucca plan by charging that after the waste containers dissolve, the wastes might erupt in a fission explosion, scattering radioactivity to the winds or into groundwater, or both."We think there's a generic problem with putting fissile materials underground," said co-author Charles Bowman.
- In 1990, the National Research Council said Energy's plan for Yucca is "bound to fail" because it is "a scientific impossibility" to build an underground nuclear waste dump that will be safe for 10,000 years.
- In 1989, 16 members of the U.S. Geologic Survey charged that the DOE was deliberately preventing the discovery of problems that would disqualify the site. They reported that, "There is no facility for trial and error, for genuine research, for innovation, or for creativity." Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission complained that work at site seemed designed to get the repository built rather than to determine if the area is suitable.
- In 1983, the National Academy of Sciences reported that chemical characteristics of water at Yucca Mt. are such that nuclear wastes would dissolve more easily than at most other places.
While regulations require the DOE to contain the cancer agents for 10,000 years, New York Times science writer Matthew L. Wald has said, "The waste...is the most concentrated and dangerous, and some of it remains radioactive for millions of years."
In 1999, the DOE declared that leaving the waste where it is, at 77 reactor sites, is just as safe as moving it to Nevada. Given Yucca Mountain's faults and the enormous risks of moving the waste, it's less reckless to leave it with its producers while seeking alternatives. Independent scientists suggest on-site, above-ground, monitored storage.
Leaving the waste where it is allows time to give alternatives the consideration they deserve.
John M. LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, a nonprofit environmental group in Wisconsin, and edits its quarterly newsletter The Pathfinder.