Former Yucca Mountain Inspector Says Site Riddled with Problems

NMED Releases Final Corrective Action Order for LANL

The government's former Senior Inspector of the Yucca Mountain Project, Bill Belke, said last week that the project is so laden with problems that it may be difficult for the Department of Energy (or DOE) to obtain a permit to dispose of waste there. According to Belke, there are problems with the safety data that is critical to obtaining an operating permit.

Belke, who inspected the Yucca Mountain Project for seven years, said that there were occasions when he saw DOE employees' adjusting safety data for the site in order to resolve the problems with the data collected by numerous scientists over the past two decades. Some of the data documented earthquake and volcanic activity in the Yucca Mountain area, as well as groundwater flow from the site. Belke thinks that these data flaws could pose problems for DOE, saying, "...If [the data is] going into a license [application, it] has got to be of high pedigree quality.... They've got to make a case that this data is accurate and qualified." Belke also criticized DOE's handling of such flawed data, saying, "They would try to defend [it] as opposed to fixing [it].... It's like the old dam story - you fix the leak, then you have another one and another one."

Yucca Mountain is located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada and sits in the Amargosa Valley, above the largest underground river in the southwest. Last summer, President Bush approved Yucca Mountain as the first high-level nuclear waste disposal area in the country, despite protest and lawsuits from citizens and the Nevada state government.

The State of Nevada recently submitted a court filing arguing that the Yucca Mountain project cannot proceed because the federal government cannot prove that the 77,000 tons of radioactive waste planned for Yucca Mountain will not seep into the groundwater near the site. Nevada claims that DOE is violating the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which mandates that DOE consider a site for waste disposal only if its natural geology can contain the waste. In the case of Yucca Mountain, DOE did not rely on the site's natural geology, but instead designed engineered barriers to contain the waste. Nevada's allegations only further support Belke's claims that, "DOE has a very difficult task to make their case [for Yucca Mountain]."

* The New Mexico Environment Department (or NMED) released the Final Corrective Action Order for Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) last week, despite a lawsuit filed by LANL challenging NMED's finding of "imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or the environment" posed by environmental contamination at LANL. LANL claims that NMED's order is "duplicative and unnecessary" and, according to officials, LANL will continue its own cleanup program while fighting the NMED order in court.

NMED representatives say that the final order is not largely different from the draft, although it does include responses to public comments that were submitted on the May 2002 draft order. Activists are pleased that NMED released the final order because it outlines a strict and enforceable schedule that LANL must meet.

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