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FYI Number 116: September 12, 2001

DOE Seeking Comment on Nuclear Waste Repository at Yucca Mountain

Later this year, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is expected to make a recommendation to President Bush on whether Yucca Mountain, Nevada is a suitable site for a nuclear waste repository. In preparation for that decision, the Department of Energy has been holding several public hearings in Nevada this month, and is seeking public comments to inform the Secretary's decision. Comments MUST BE RECEIVED BY SEPTEMBER 20; please see below for details on how to submit comments.

According to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the federal government has responsibility for final disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. While DOE originally selected nine locations to consider as potential repositories, in 1987 Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to limit consideration exclusively to the Yucca Mountain site. Just last month, DOE released its Preliminary Site Suitability Evaluation, which makes a preliminary estimate that possible radiation releases from the site would fall well within standards set by the EPA in June, and within proposed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulations.

On August 27, the American Institute of Physics received a letter from DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, seeking input on a number of topics related to the Secretary's decision. The letter states, in part, "Over the next several months the Secretary of Energy will carefully consider a large body of scientific documents, as well as the views of the public, and decide whether or not to recommend to the President that Yucca Mountain be developed to serve as our repository for spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste.... Your comments in response to this notice would be very much appreciated." The letter also includes a specific list of Suggested Topics for Public Comment on Yucca Mountain on which it is seeking "views and comments," as follows:

1. "Please provide your views concerning whether the Yucca Mountain Preliminary Site Suitability Evaluation (PSSE) and other scientific documents produced by the Department provide an adequate basis for finding that the Yucca Mountain site is suitable for development of a repository. If you believe that certain aspects of the PSSE are inadequate, please detail the basis for this belief and indicate how the documentation might be made adequate with respect to these aspects."

2. "If the Secretary determines that the scientific analysis indicates that the Yucca Mountain site is likely to meet the applicable radiation protection standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, do you believe that the Secretary should proceed to recommend the site to the President at this time? If not, please explain."

3. "Are there any reasons that you believe should prevent the President from concluding that the Yucca Mountain site is qualified for the preparation and submission of a construction license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?"

4. "If you believe that the Secretary should not proceed with a recommendation to develop a repository at Yucca Mountain, what mechanism should be utilized to meet the Department's legal obligation to begin accepting spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste?"

5. "Please provide any other comments concerning any relevant aspect of the Yucca Mountain site for use as a repository, or that are otherwise relevant to the consideration of a possible recommendation by the Secretary."

"Any decision regarding a permanent repository for this nation's nuclear waste will be made based on sound science," said Secretary Abraham in an August 21 press release announcing the public hearings and comment period. "The measures I am taking today are designed to assist me in this effort. I am committed to making sure that we arrive at the right decision for America."

Even if Abraham concludes that progress toward a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain should continue, many additional steps are required before construction could begin. If President Bush receives a positive recommendation from the secretary, and the President approves the recommendation, he must notify Congress and the State of Nevada. Nevada would have the opportunity to submit to Congress a notice of disapproval. In that case, Congress would have to pass a joint resolution approving Yucca Mountain as the repository site in order for DOE to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for construction authorization. The NRC approval process could also take several years. The number-two Democrat in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, in a statement said that Nevada will oppose construction of a repository at Yucca Mountain, and "I will continue to oppose any legislation or regulation that would bring high-level nuclear waste to Nevada." Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) reportedly supports Reid's position.

Anyone wishing to read the Yucca Mountain Preliminary Site Suitability Evaluation or submit comments to DOE can access the department's Yucca Mountain web site.

Comments may also be mailed or faxed to: Carol Hanlon, S&ER Products Manager, U.S. Department of Energy, Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Office, P.O. Box 30307 M/S 025, North Las Vegas, NV 89036-0707; fax: 1-800-967-0739.

COMMENTS MUST BE SUBMITTED BY SEPTEMBER 20, 2001.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
(301) 209-3094

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