NRC Chief Backs Safety of Nuke Waste Shipments
By Benjamin Grove
Las Vegas Sun, May 23, 2002
*WASHINGTON -- The government can safely transport 77,000 tons of the nation's most radioactive nuclear waste across
America to Yucca Mountain, top officials from the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission and Energy Department assured the
But commission Chairman Richard Meserve sidestepped pointed
from Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who asked if
the agency would refuse to license Yucca Mountain as a waste site if
further testing proves that metal waste shipping
containers are vulnerable to terrorist attack.
In front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this
morning, Meserve said the commission was reviewing
the strength of the steel containers and may conduct full-scale tests
within the next few years.
Ensign said Congress would be acting irresponsibly if it approved
Yucca Mountain before a transportation plan was better
defined, and before more container tests are conducted.
"I think it's ridiculous that we are going forward with this before
we know we can deal with these problems," Ensign said at a
At issue is the proposal to bury the nation's nuclear waste at Yucca
Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The Energy
Department, President Bush and the House have approved the plan. If the Senate agrees in a July vote, the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission would be responsible for licensing the site.
The Senate committee held three hearings on Yucca, the final one
today. Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., allowed Ensign
and Nevada's Democrat Sen. Harry Reid to sit in on the hearings and
question witnesses. The committee is expected to vote
June 5, and the whole Senate is expected to take the issue up in July.
The hearings mostly focused on whether transporting waste to Yucca
from 131 sites nationwide is safe. Nevada officials say
it cannot be done and that the Energy Department has not decided how
waste would be shipped and on what routes.
Energy Undersecretary Robert Card told the Senate panel otherwise:
The nation has already safely hauled a limited number
of high-level waste shipments and far more low-level waste shipments
without catastrophic accidents.
"We feel very comfortable about transportation," Card said. "I would
reject the notion that we don't have a plan or that we
haven't thought about this issue."
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., said it was backward to
approve Yucca before determining whether large-scale
shipping was safe. Card countered, "You determine where you want
something to go, and then you decide how to get it
there. We don't think this is out of step at all."
A heated exchange between Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and former
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim
Hall also centered on shipping the waste.
Hall said the Senate should delay its vote until more studies and
full-scale container tests are complete. Thomas brought up
the point that Hall was now a paid consultant for Nevada. Thomas said
he was offended that Hall would suggest Congress
and the Energy Department would simply approve Yucca Mountain and
then not focus on transportation safety.
"I think that's wrong, sir," Thomas told Hall. "They will look at it.
That will be the second phase: to determine whether that is
In other testimony, Gary Jones of the General Accounting Office,
Congress' investigative arm, told senators that Yucca faced
three critical uncertainties: the expected lifespan of the waste
containers, the ability of Yucca's physical geology to isolate
waste from the environment and mathematical formulas used to predict
Yucca's performance. The GAO was critical of the
project, and cast doubt on the Energy Department's ability to meet
cost and schedule estimates.
Jared Cohon of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board told senators
the board's assessment of the scientific evidence
supporting Yucca was "weak to moderate." The board was
by Congress in 1987 to watch the Energy
Department's studies of Yucca.
But Cohon added that no single factor had yet eliminated Yucca as a
potential waste dump. He said the massive,
first-of-its-kind project would never be free from "uncertainties."
"It is up to policymakers to determine how much uncertainty is
acceptable at the time you make the decision," Cohon said.
Campbell, the only other known Republican senator to join Ensign in
opposing Yucca, said waste containers had not been
drop-tested at heights of 800 to 1,000 feet, the distance vehicles
sometimes fall in accidents in the Rocky Mountains.
"We are dealing with so many unknowns," Campbell said. "We ought to
know a lot more."
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., another Yucca advocate, said facts about
Yucca were being lost in a haze of emotion that had
"All of this rhetoric that is flying around here gets in the way of
making a solid, sound decision," he said.
The Senate's leading Yucca advocate, Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska,
urged the Senate to approve the project.
"At some point you have to make a decision," Murkowski said. "You
can't vacillate forever. Then you have to make a
decision and you have to be held accountable for that decision."
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