GO SLOW ON YUCCA MOUNTAIN
Denver Post Editorial -- Sunday, June 23, 2002
The U.S. Senate should not approve the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste
project unless the Department of Energy first answers some hard
questions that the Bush administration has sidestepped.
A federal law written more than 14 years ago says Congress must vote
up or down on the proposed repository for atomic wastes in southwestern
Nevada, but doesn't permit amendments. It seems likely some senator will
offer such a proposal before mid-summer.
However, forcing such a vote would be unwise. The existing statute
would make Congress surrender too much power to the executive branch,
including any realistic clout in overseeing, modifying or even stopping
the project if critics' worst fears prove true.
By contrast, a refusal to vote on the issue in the near term could
prod the DOE into addressing lingering, serious concerns about the site
- and put an embarrassing spotlight on the DOE's cheerleading for the
$58 billion project. The biggest worry about Yucca Mountain's
suitability to store nuclear wastes is whether the wastes would
contaminate nearby groundwater, and thus affect human communities and
wildlife, in just a few decades. A key scientific test now underway
could help answer the question. But the DOE doesn't want to wait for the
results. Instead, even as the crucial test was on-going, Energy
Secretary Spencer Abraham proclaimed that "science" had proven the
The DOE also hasn't been entirely up front with Congress about how
the Yucca Mountain plan mutated over the years, as scientists discovered
new problems and political bosses ordered them to just ignore the issues
or work around the potential show-stoppers.
Originally, Yucca Mountain was thought to be geologically stable
enough, and free from groundwater woes, to hold the wastes in a purely
geological repository. However, groundwater concerns persisted, and the
area remains geologically active. A small earthquake rattled the area
this summer, and a similar temblor shook the vicinity in the mid-1990s.
Today, the DOE envisions the Yucca Mountain repository as an
engineered waste system, reliant on specialized metal drums to contain
the wastes. Yet engineers disagree whether the drums can resist
corrosion for long periods or could eventually leak.
Proponents say that after spending more than a decade and billions
of dollars on the Yucca Mountain plan, it's time to just get on with the
job. Their argument ignores the fact that, years ago, Congress stupidly
decided not to consider any other alternative.
The United States instead should look at an array of options, as
nuclear-dependent France and other European countries have been doing.
That process shouldn't be open-ended, because the nation does need to
make a decision. But the solution should be driven by rational science,
not political hype.
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