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 project safe.

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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