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 Senate today.

But commission Chairman Richard Meserve sidestepped pointed questions 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 hearing.

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 safe."

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 commissioned 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 delayed action.

"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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