Nevada's Lawyer Says Science Will Prevail in Yucca Mountain Fight

LANL Issues Comments on NMED's Corrective Action Order

Joseph Egan, a nuclear engineer who is heading Nevada's legal battle against the Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository, says that he is confident that the project will fail. First, he says there are many federal documents that show that scientists knew as early as 1995 that Yucca Mountain cannot support the disposal of the nation's commercial spent nuclear fuel. Egan claims that even if the Department of Justice prevails in Nevada's litigation against the project, "it's my opinion this project will collapse under its own ill-begotten design."

Egan says that the knowledge that science does not support the Yucca Mountain decision persuaded the Department of Energy (or DOE) to adopt lax safety standards that may not protect the public from highly radioactive material, but would allow for disposal at Yucca Mountain. Egan and Nevada's Attorney General, Frankie Sue Del Papa, charge that because Yucca Mountain's geology is unsuitable for the waste, DOE shifted reliance to engineered containers, which violates the intent of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to rely on the natural features of Yucca Mountain to contain the waste. Egan also said that the state intends to show that DOE's 10,000-year regulatory period for safely containing the waste contradicts the findings of the National Academy of Sciences that recommends a one million year containment period.

Joe Davis, spokesperson for DOE Secretary Abraham, says, "Both on scientific and legal issues, we have a strong case for moving forward." However, Del Papa is confident that Nevada will prevail, saying, "We remain convinced that the fight is winnable. It is far too soon for the public to be discouraged."

* Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) this week released its rebuttal to the draft Corrective Action Order issued by the New Mexico Environment Department (or NMED) on May 2nd. The 145-page comment states that the order, "does not support a finding of imminent [and] substantial endangerment associated with [LANL]." LANL claims that, prior to May 2nd, NMED "continually reassured the public to the contrary." According to Jim Holt, LANL's assistant director for operations, it was previously believed that LANL's environmental management and cleanup strategies had the full support of NMED.

The order requires LANL to mitigate damages from the release of hazardous waste or other constituents that may pose a threat to human health or the environment. Although LANL estimates that complete remediation could take as long as 40 years, NMED's order provides a framework that reduces that time by half. James Bearzi, of NMED, said, "this is our sincere attempt to accelerate [the cleanup process]." LANL responded that both its efforts and those of NMED would be better served by focusing on the cleanup program already underway at LANL. However, according to a 1997 DOE Inspector General's report, of the $360 million spent by LANL for cleanup by 1995, a mere 20% was spent on actual cleanup, such as moving contaminated soil, indicating that a regulatory response by NMED was required.

A representative of NMED said that the department will respond to comments received from LANL and others, including CCNS, in 30 to 60 days.

Read CCNS's comments to NMED's Corrective Action Order for Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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