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FYI Number 63: May 24, 2002

Yucca Mountain Pros and Cons Aired in Series of Senate Hearings

Transportation of spent nuclear fuel was the topic raised most often as senators heard several days of testimony on establishing a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. As reported in FYI #51, the governor of Nevada has vetoed President Bush's decision to go forward with the project. Congress has 90 legislative days, till July 25, to override Governor Kenny Guinn's veto, if it so chooses. On May 8, the House voted to override the governor's veto, and the issue then moved to the Senate. Congress's override of the veto would allow DOE to submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which would then have four years to evaluate the technical merits of DOE's case for siting a repository at Yucca Mountain.

In recent days, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) chaired three Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearings on Yucca Mountain. Critics and proponents of the project alike had an opportunity to present their viewpoints, objections, fears and recommendations. Although he is the sponsor of Senate resolution S.J. Res. 34 to override the Nevada governor's veto, Bingaman asked balanced, thoughtful questions and ensured that both sides were heard.

"It is not our job," Bingaman told the committee, "to substitute our judgment" for that of the NRC on the technical aspects of the issue. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, as the first witness, noted that in overriding the Nevada veto, Congress would not be making a final decision on the site, but placing that decision in the hands of the NRC's independent experts.

The second panel of witnesses, appearing at the request of the State of Nevada, testified about the likely number of waste shipments traveling across the country, the fear that vehicles moving nuclear waste could be possible targets for terrorists, the potential for trucking accidents, and the regulations governing drivers. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson spoke about the "monumental" task of preparing for terrorist attacks during the Winter Olympic Games. James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, commented that "this will be the biggest transportation safety decision made by this Congress." While he emphasized that he was "not anti-nuclear" and had no position on the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a repository, Hall argued that Congress should not give its approval to go forward with the project until DOE had developed, and Congress had reviewed, an acceptable transportation plan.

Although Abraham was the first to testify, his statement included responses to such concerns. He cited DOE's past track record of safe waste transportation, and said that with waste now temporarily stored at over 100 sites around the country, much of it was likely to be moved to other locations sooner or later. He thought a comprehensive federal plan, coordinated with the states - as DOE intends to develop - was preferable to a number of uncoordinated, "ad hoc" transportation activities. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) pointed out that "we don't live in a risk-free society." Senator. Larry Craig (R-ID) said he was glad the Olympics had not been cancelled due to fears of terrorism. Mayor Anderson agreed that fear should not drive such decisions, but said that because no ultimate solution to the nuclear waste issue has been found, the country should decommission all currently- operating nuclear power reactors and take the time to find an acceptable solution.

Timing was another issue that arose repeatedly. More than one witness noted that DOE believes spent nuclear fuel is currently safe for 50 to 100 years in temporary storage at existing NRC- approved sites. It was suggested that alternatives such as reprocessing and monitored, retrievable storage should be investigated more thoroughly before deciding on permanent underground geological storage at Yucca Mountain. Former NRC commissioner Victor Gilinsky pointed out that the waste was safer to move after cooling on-site for many years. Abraham, when asked about on-site temporary storage, said that some existing sites were running out of space, and while they were considered safe, DOE had not researched seismic activity and other considerations at these sites as it had at Yucca Mountain. He added that Congress has given DOE neither the funding nor the guidance to thoroughly pursue alternatives to deep geological storage at Yucca Mountain. At the final hearing, NRC Chairman Richard Meserve noted that "the commission takes no position" on whether a permanent repository should be located at Yucca Mountain. He said the commission's views would be shaped by the results of the licensing process, and "our decision will be based on the information before us at that time." Asked by Bingaman if he saw any reason why Congress should not vote to let DOE file the license application, Meserve replied that he was "not aware of anything that would foreclose either decision Congress would make." Addressing the fact that DOE will not be ready to submit its license application within the statutory 90-day period after any congressional override, Meserve said he viewed the 90-day provision as a "permissive, enabling provision," and added that the project would be best served if DOE took the time necessary to submit "a high-quality application." He noted that assessing the safety of transportation and the transportation casks would be part of the NRC's evaluation: "We have an obligation to ensure public health and safety." Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R- CO) remarked, "I don't think anybody can guarantee absolute safety under any and all conditions."

Also testifying on the final day was Jerrod Cohon, chairman of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which was established by Congress for independent oversight of DOE's work on a permanent repository. He reported that the Board finds the technical basis for DOE's performance estimates of the site to currently be "weak to moderate," but added that the Board has found "no individual technical or scientific factor" that would automatically rule out the project. "It is not possible to avoid all technical uncertainty, at Yucca Mountain or any other site," he cautioned; "It is up to the policymakers to decide how much uncertainty is acceptable."

DOE Under Secretary Robert Card declared his confidence that the total costs of the project would not top DOE's current estimate of $56 billion, and that the existing trust fund for this purpose would be adequate. Gary Jones of GAO testified that there were no contingencies built into the project's cost or schedule. "I think that's very, very risky for a first-of-its-kind project," she said. It will be "the most expensive construction project in the history of the world," Nevada Senator John Ensign (R) said, "for something I believe is totally unnecessary." He urged that on-site, dry-cask waste storage continue to be used while DOE put the money instead into finding alternatives to permanent storage at Yucca Mountain.

A recent survey by National Journal's CongressDaily shows 48 Senators ready to vote for Bingaman's resolution to override Guinn's veto, and 19 who have said they will oppose it. Bingaman plans an Energy and Natural Resources Committee vote for June 5.

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

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