"Newspeak" from Nuclear Dump Supporters at May 16 Senate Hearing on Yucca Mountain
Contact Lisa Gue
May 22, 2002

The May 16 hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository (Senate Joint Resolution 34), included several noteworthy and dangerously misleading instances of Orwellian "newspeak" by supporters of the proposed dump. Highlights are chronicled below. The committee is scheduled to continue hearings on the Yucca Mountain dump Wednesday, May 22.

1. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham cited environmental concerns as a basis for his Yucca Mountain recommendation, claiming that a repository would advance clean-up at U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) weapons sites and go "above and beyond" EPA regulations. Actually, EPA's lax Yucca Mountain radiation protection standards are the subject of a lawsuit brought by environmental and public interest organizations. The standards, established last year by the Bush administration, permit a 12-mile (18 kilometer) buffer zone in which radioactive contamination from the dump would not be regulated - a "radioactive septic field" in the words of the Natural Resources Defense Council, lead attorneys in the case. Dump opponents are concerned that the weakening of environmental standards at Yucca Mountain not only threatens public health and the environment in the vicinity of the Nevada site but also sets a dangerous precedent for regulatory rollbacks at other DOE and commercial nuclear operations. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reminded Abraham that more than 500 environmental and public interest groups oppose the Yucca Mountain dump. Abraham, in his last term in the U.S. Senate, had a 0% environmental voting record, according to the League of Conservation Voters' 2000 scorecard.

2. Responding to Sen. Jeff Bingaman's (D-N.M.) questions about the safety of nuclear waste transportation, Abraham first played a fatalistic card. Like it or not, he stated, nuclear waste is going to be transported, if not to Yucca Mountain then to an "ad hoc alternative" that is "less desirable," such as the proposed Private Fuel Storage (PFS) facility on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation in Utah. The PFS license application is currently being reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) - the licensing agency of undesirable nuclear projects to which Abraham wants the Yucca Mountain decision referred. Ironically, the Question of the Month on PFS' Web site is "If Yucca Mountain, Nevada is approved as the permanent federal repository for high level nuclear waste and spent fuel, will the Skull Valley temporary storage site be needed?" The answer on the site is essentially "yes." In fact, only with a Yucca Mountain repository on the horizon can PFS claim that its facility would be temporary and therefore licensable under NRC regulations. Abraham stopped short of pledging to intervene in the PFS license application.

3. When pressed with Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's (R-Colo.) well-articulated concerns about transportation, Abraham discussed the record of radioactive waste shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. But Abraham forgot to mention the 61 violations detected on WIPP shipments entering New Mexico by state Department of Public Safety inspectors and communicated to the DOE in an April 25 letter. Nor did Abraham mention the WIPP truck whose driver took a wrong turn and ended up 27 miles off course headed into downtown Albuquerque before police officials could locate the wayward radioactive shipment, or a 1999 survey that found 75 percent of emergency personnel along WIPP shipment routes in New Mexico ill-equipped to respond effectively to an incident involving radioactive materials.

4. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) attempted to come to Abraham's aid on the issue of transportation. No need to worry about transport accidents involving nuclear waste, he said, because the shipping casks are virtually indestructible. In fact, currently licensed nuclear waste transportation casks have never been physically tested, and regulatory requirements, which date back to the 1970s, dangerously understate real-life accident conditions. Craig referred to a display of a model nuclear fuel assembly to make the point that fuel rods are solid and cannot "leak." Nonetheless, irradiated fuel rods are so intensely radioactive that a person standing one yard away from a 10 year-old assembly would receive a lethal dose in less than three minutes. Had Craig's display been an actual irradiated fuel assembly, the hearing would likely have been fatal - literally.

5. Sen. Mary Landreiu (D-La.) acknowledged that the DOE's Yucca Mountain plan wasn't perfect but spoke in favor of the proposed dump, saying that nuclear power plants in Louisiana are "dangerous sites." Strangely, Landrieu is nonetheless a strong supporter of nuclear power and earlier this spring co-sponsored the "Nuclear Power 2010" amendment to the Senate energy bill which would promote an increased reliance on [dangerous] nuclear power and result in the generation of more [dangerous] nuclear waste. This apparent contradiction is perhaps less surprising considering that Landrieu has accepted $98,000 from nuclear industry PACs over the last three election cycles, making her the second most popular Democrat and seventh most popular senator overall with the industry promoting the Yucca Mountain dump. Unfortunately Landrieu had left the hearing when Abraham admitted that waste would continue to be stored at operating reactors across the country regardless of whether a repository is opened.

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