GAO Report Calls DOE's Recommendation of Yucca Mountain Premature

LANL's Anthrax Policy Under Review

* The General Accounting Office (or GAO) released an analysis of the $57 billion Yucca Mountain project this week, which calls Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's selection of the site as a nuclear waste repository "premature" at this time. Abraham is expected to recommend Yucca Mountain in early 2002. The GAO report says, "Recommending to the President that the Yucca Mountain site is suitable for repository is within the discretion of the Secretary of Energy, but ... may be premature."

The Department of Energy (or DOE), under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, is obligated to find a repository for 70,000 tons of spent commercial nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive nuclear wastes. Amendments to the Act in 1987 instructed DOE to investigate only the Yucca Mountain site, which is located 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada.

GAO, which is the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, reports that Abraham's recommendation of the site should be postponed until DOE can clarify the uncertainties regarding the expected lifetime of the barriers engineered to stabilize the waste in the repository, and the physical properties of the site.

GAO agrees that clarification of these issues, as well as the other 293 unresolved technical issues submitted to the DOE, could stall the project. GAO's report says, "... DOE is unlikely to achieve its goal of opening a repository at Yucca Mountain by 2010 and currently does not have a reliable estimate of when, and at what cost, such a repository can be opened."

Nevada Senator Harry Reid, chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Nuclear Safety, believes that the GAO report only confirms his earlier opinions on the project, saying, "For more than a decade I've said science was taking a backseat to politics. This shows that DOE has thrown science off the back of the bus."

Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) is currently reconsidering its longtime policy forbidding work with virulent strains of anthrax in order to help the Centers for Disease Control (or CDC) handle the demand for study of the bacteria following the recent anthrax attacks in America.

LANL currently handles only the DNA of anthrax and other highly infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and smallpox, in its Biosafety Level-2 (or BSL-2) facility. The anthrax DNA samples that LANL receives for its BSL-2 are cultured at CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, and then sent to Northern Arizona University where the DNA is extracted and then shipped to LANL. LANL is hoping that culturing its own anthrax, and extracting the DNA, would help to ease CDC's current workload. Jill Trewhella, head of LANL's biosciences division, said that the request for LANL to work with live anthrax "... seemed like a reasonable thing to ask."

LANL's decision to reconsider its use of live anthrax comes following a request to build and operate a Biosafety Level-3 facility, which is specifically designed to handle live, deadly organisms. It also comes after Congressman Edward Markey's admonishment of LANL for accepting virulent strains of anthrax when it is not allowed to do so.

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