House Drastically Cuts Funding for Yucca Mountain

* The Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee of the House of Representatives last week drastically cut funding requested by the Department of Energy (DOE) for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Although DOE requested $880 million, the committee appropriated only $131 million for fiscal year 2005.

The committee was forced to cut the budget for Yucca Mountain because much of it was contained in a special $15 billion fund established by Congress for the Yucca Mountain project. This fund, however, has been depleted in order to help shrink the federal deficit. As Chairman David Hobson, of Ohio, said, "I think we have an obligation to get [the facility] opened and funded, but I don't have the tools right now to get that done."

The cuts may jeopardize DOE's plans for 2005 to designate transportation routes to Yucca Mountain and apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to operate the facility.

Yucca Mountain is a high-level radioactive waste repository to be built 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. Yucca Mountain is expected to store 77,000 tons of commercial and defense-related waste beginning in 2010. However, the project is behind schedule due to scientific concerns and political pressure.

Opponents, including Nevada Senator Harry Reid and Governor Kenny Guinn, argue that DOE is relying on unsound and potentially dangerous science. Paul Craig, former member of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, agrees. The board is a panel of scientists appointed by the President to consider the scientific reliability of the Yucca Mountain design.

In a recent article in the newsletter of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), Craig argues that DOE's strict reliance on schedules may compromise the scientific integrity of Yucca Mountain. Craig argues that DOE uses a decisionmaking process that is negligent of public or scientific opinion, saying, "Instead of drawing on the expert community or listening to the public, DOE decides internally what's to be done. Having made its decision, it announces its plan. And then it defends its decision against all criticism."

At Yucca Mountain, Craig is concerned that DOE is overlooking the protection of the only aquifer in the region in favor of its 2010 deadline. Craig is concerned because the barriers that DOE has designed to protect the waste from leaking may corrode in time due to the extreme heat generated by the waste within the underground caverns.

Craigıs opponents argue that Yucca Mountain should be developed despite these concerns and that any physical problems encountered during operation can be fixed in the future. However, Arjun Makhijani, of IEER, points out, "The aquifer under Yucca Mountain is currently used for irrigation only 20 miles away. There is no other water. Containment failure would mean severe contamination."

Craig proposes that DOE slow its rush toward completing Yucca Mountain and instead pursue scientific solutions that are guaranteed to protect public health and safety. Craig states, "What's needed now is a Presidential decision instructing DOE to slow the Yucca Mountain program and to get the science right."

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