Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board Raises Concern About Yucca Mountain Disposal Plan

* The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, an independent agency within the U.S. government, released a report recently that points out flaws in the high-level nuclear waste disposal plan for the Yucca Mountain repository that may compromise groundwater in the area.

The Department of Energy (DOE) argues that the disposal plan for Yucca Mountain will utilize the natural heat of nuclear waste in order to ensure that the metal waste containers do not corrode. DOE intends to space the containers close together in order to heat the tunnels of Yucca Mountain to nearly 300 degrees, which DOE believes would keep the containers dry and free from rust and corrosion. In a letter to DOE, the Board pointed out, "most reactions, [including rusting], take place faster at higher temperatures."

Furthermore, any water present in the underground repository will be mixed with salt, which is present in the repository's dust. The Board is concerned that the salty water may lead to perforating and pitting of the waste containers. Board member David Duquette, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said, "We basically raised a red flag and said, 'If you're going to do this, you've decreased the possibility of your container being a real barrier.'"

For more than twenty years, DOE has been investigating Yucca Mountain as a site for a high-level nuclear waste repository. Yucca Mountain sits atop the Amargosa aquifer, which supplies drinking water to thousands of people. Corroded containers may cause radioactive waste to leak into the ground, potentially affecting the aquifer. As Nevada Representative Shelley Berkeley said, "Once again science has shown the inadequacy of planning for Yucca Mountain and the inability of the site to protect Nevadans and our environment from nuclear waste."

Previously the Board claimed that evidence to support Yucca Mountain was weak to moderate. Originally, the National Nuclear Waste Policy Act required that DOE use the natural geology of Yucca Mountain to dispose of the waste, without the aid of manmade containers. The federal government waived that requirement when it was found that the geology of Yucca Mountain could not perform that function. Wenonah Hauter, of Public Citizen, said, "The reliance on engineered barriers to permanently contain dangerously radioactive waste for thousands of years is a huge safety compromise."

Despite evidence that Yucca Mountain is unfit to receive high-level waste, the Board can make no judgment on the question of whether Yucca Mountain should be approved for development. As the Board was established by Congress to evaluate only the technical and scientific validity of DOE's high-level waste disposal plans, such judgments would go beyond the Board's established mandate.

Hauter claims that the Board's recent findings indicate that "The [Yucca Mountain] project is unworkable and should be abandoned." Several problems with the repository have been examined, including the fact that it sits in an earthquake zone. An earthquake of magnitude 4.4 on the Richter Scale occurred in 2002. Hauter said, "The DOE ought to heed the Board's warning and drop the Yucca Mountain project for a safer alternative."

Back to News Index