Nuclear Waste Storage Still Presents a Mountain of Problems
By John LaForge
Guest Columnist
St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sunday, May 26, 2002

* The Pioneer Press included a "Yucca Mountain Chronology" in the May 12 story on the proposed transportation and dumping of high-level radioactive waste. Many critical events were left out:

Last summer, the state of Nevada brought suit in federal court charging that the Yucca site does not meet the original legal requirements set in 1982 for deep geologic disposal and should be disqualified. When problems have been found, the suit alleges, the requirements have been weakened to suit dump proponents.

In 1998, the Energy Department said the site is a fractured, leaky mountain plagued by earthquakes and that its untested waste containers have limited viability.

In 1999, proof that the repository is periodically flooded came from zircon crystals discovered deep inside. "Crystals do not form without complete immersion in water," said Jerry Szymanski, formerly the Energy Department'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 means radiation dispersal from the site is much more likely during the proposed 10,000-year lifetime of the dump.

In 1997, DOE researchers announced that rainwater had seeped 800 feet into the repository in only 40 years. The government had earlier claimed it would take hundreds or thousands of years. The law has long held that fast-flowing water would disqualify the site.

In 1995, a Los Alamos National Laboratory report said that after the waste containers dissolve, the uranium might erupt in a fission explosion, scattering radioactivity to the winds, 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 the 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. Geological Survey charged the DOE was deliberately preventing the discovery of problems that would disqualify the site. They said, "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 Mountain are such that nuclear wastes would dissolve more easily than at most other places.

While regulations require the Energy Department to contain the cancer agents for only 10,000 years, New York Times science writer Matthew Wald has said, "The waste... is the most concentrated and dangerous, and some of it remains radioactive for millions of years."

In 1999, the Energy Department declared that leaving the waste where it is, at 77 reactor sites, is just as safe as moving it to Nevada.

In December 2001, the Government Accounting Office reported that the project's managing contractor, Bechtel SAIC, said it has yet to complete 293 studies needed to analyze the mountain's geology and the metal alloy casks that would hold irradiated nuclear fuel underground. 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 aboveground, retrievable and monitored storage. Keeping the waste on-site allows time to give cask designs and alternative sites the consideration they deserve.

Back to Yucca Mountain