2018 - 04 - 18 Mothers for Peace Position on Yucca Mountain

San Luis Obispo Mothers For Peace (MFP) is opposed to placing our nation's irradiated waste in Yucca Mountain for many reasons related to the environment and safety.
  1. MFP asserts that the use of Yucca Mountain would be an environmental injustice. SLOMFP supports the sovereign Western Shoshone Nation in its fight to keep the nation’s nuclear waste from being buried in its ancestral hunting and gathering grounds and sacred area. The placement of a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain is in clear violation of the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley that recognizes Shoshone territorial sovereignty. A lengthy inquiry by the United Nations Indigenous Rights Commission upheld the Western Shoshone title to these lands. The project cannot move forward until this issue is resolved.
  2. Irradiated waste must be kept on-site at the point of generation until a permanent repository can be found. Many precautions must be put in place:  thick-walled, robust canisters and casks; containment; continuous monitoring; retrievable in case of cracks or leaking. DOE’s own research has confirmed that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored on site in dry casks for hundreds of years. On-site storage would provide the additional time needed for the search for a more sound solution for nuclear waste disposal.
  3. MFP agrees with the State of Nevada that the Yucca Mountain site should be disqualified for all of the following conditions: 
  • The site is placed above the Amorgosa Aquifer, a freshwater aquifer located underneath Yucca Mountain— the most important water source for the residents of Amorgosa Valley, Las Vegas, and some areas of California.  
  • The site has a potential for future human intrusion compromising waste containment and isolation;
  • There is a potential for recurring seismic activity and volcanism disrupting waste containment and isolation. The Yucca Mountain was formed by volcanic action and is located in an earthquake zone. Nevada ranks third in the United States for current seismic activity. DOE scientists have confirmed the presence of a major geologic fault running through the proposed repository site and other fractures in the mountain’s rock formation;
  • Groundwater travel time from the emplaced waste location to the accessible environment is very likely less than the 1,000 year criteria established in DOE's guidelines.

Even after spending well over 20 years and over $11 billion to study the site, DOE has failed to demonstrate that the structural integrity of the proposed repository would remain uncompromised in the event of a future natural disaster. In fact, several independent oversight agencies have questioned DOE’s claims regarding Yucca Mountain’s suitability. For instance, in a report released on January 24, 2002, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB), a government agency responsible for providing independent scientific and technical oversight for management and disposal of high-level radioactive waste, declared that the scientific credibility of DOE’s arguments on Yucca is “weak to moderate.” The report expressed “limited confidence” in DOE’s estimates of Yucca Mountain’s ability to safely isolate and contain radioactive waste.

In summary, it is time to implement a truly scientific process to search for a permanent repository for nuclear waste. Wasting more time, expertise and dollars on Yucca Mountain will do nothing to find a solution to the ever increasing problem of irradiated waste produced by nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons.

What can I do?

MFP thus opposes H.R.3053, Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017. Contact your elected representatives and ask them to please vote “NO” on H.R.3053 - Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017.

Background:

During the first 40 years that nuclear reactors were producing radioactive waste in the United States, no legislation was enacted to manage its disposal. Much of this waste remains radioactive with a half-life of more than one million years. It is kept in various types of temporary storage on the site of generation.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required the Secretary of Energy to issue guidelines for selection of sites for construction of two permanent, underground nuclear waste repositories. The Department of Energy (DOE) was to study five potential sites, and then recommend three sites to the President by January 1, 1985. The original five sites selected for study were located in Nevada, Washington, Texas, Massachusetts and Vermont. The final three were those in Nevada, Washington and Texas.

Due to political pressure, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in December 1987 to designate Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the only site to be characterized as a permanent repository for all of the nation's nuclear waste. This decision was not based on the site's scientific merit.

Yucca Mountain is located on lands adjacent to the Nevada Test Site (NTS), which are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Air Force. The Western Shoshone Indian Nation also claims Yucca Mountain and the NTS area as part of its much larger treaty lands that have never been ceded to the U.S. government. In order for the site to be used as a repository, it will need to be permanently withdrawn by Congress for that purpose. The treaty dispute must be resolved in order for the government to demonstrate full ownership and control over the repository site, as required by the NRC.

Key technical issues of the Yucca Mountain site that were studied but not resolved include an active geologic environment; oxidizing/corrosive subsurface environment; high seismic/earthquake activity; relatively young volcanic activity; and rapid water movement through the mountain. DOE’s own "suitability guidelines" require that groundwater from such a site could not travel faster than a given rate, but that rate was rewritten to claim Yucca Mountain as viable.

By 1992, it was apparent that the Yucca Mountain site could not meet the EPA standard's release limit for carbon-14 in the form of carbon dioxide gas because the proposed waste emplacement location is in fractured rock above the water table. Tests confirmed that infiltrating water had reached the waste emplacement level, and below, in a period of fifty years or less. Congress directed the EPA to change the standard for Yucca Mountain because the release of carbon-14 from the waste dump would exceed the agency's own standards.

Between 1987 and 1999, site characterization studies were conducted by the DOE. The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was released in August of 1999.

In 2001, EPA announced proposed radiation standards for Yucca Mountain. The State of Nevada filed suit against the EPA, arguing the standards were inadequate. DOE was forced to investigate allegations of collusion between itself, its contractors, and the nuclear power industry to promote the repository. The release of the final Environmental Impact Statement was delayed until late 2001.

“DOE retroactively changed the rules for site suitability in December 2001 after it had become apparent that the original rules, which had been used for 17 years of the site characterization and evaluation, could not be met for Yucca Mountain.” - Dr. John Bartlett, former director of DOE’s Yucca Mountain Project, February 6, 2002.

In 2002, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recommended Yucca Mountain as a suitable site to President George W. Bush. Bush approved the recommendation. Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn exercised the State's right to veto the Yucca Mountain project. The project moved to Congress, where a simple majority in both houses was needed to overturn Guinn's veto. The resolution was passed first in the House of Representatives and then more narrowly in the Senate. President Bush signed the joint resolution into law, officially designating Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste repository site.

DOE then began work on its application for a license to build and run the repository. The NRC identified 293 technical issues DOE must solve before submitting the license application.

The State of Nevada then filed major lawsuits against DOE, NRC, Bush, and Abraham.

In 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. threw out the EPA's 10,000 year radiation standard for Yucca Mountain, instead requiring the EPA to adopt the 1 million year radiation standard recommended by the National Academy of Sciences.  Of particular concern during nuclear waste disposal are two long-lived fission products, Tc-99 (half-life 220,000 years) and I-129 (half-life 17 million years), which dominate spent fuel radioactivity after a few thousand years. The most troublesome transuranic elements in spent fuel are Np-237 (half-life two million years) and Pu-239 (half-life 24,000 years). Nevada's other lawsuits were dismissed.

In 2008, DOE submitted its license application to the NRC for review. Nevada officials filed a petition urging the NRC to reject the application based on the application's lack of critical information.

In 2009, the Secretary of Energy reported that a repository at Yucca Mountain was not a workable option, and in 2010, DOE terminated its efforts to license a repository there.

In January 2010, the Obama administration named a 15-member panel of experts to chart new paths to manage highly radioactive nuclear waste. The commission, known as the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, was directed to issue its report in 18 months.

Also in 2010 -- NRC judges halted the Yucca license hearings. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board granted the request by the DOE as part of a process for the Obama administration to seek a final withdrawal of the plan to build a Nevada repository for nuclear waste.

Yucca Mountain was declared “dead”. The site has been abandoned and nothing exists but a boarded up exploratory tunnel. There are no waste disposal tunnels or receiving and handling facilities. The waste containers and transportation casks have yet to be fully developed. And, there is no railroad to the site, and the cost of building one through Nevada could exceed $3 billion. Today, the only thing that actually exists at Yucca Mountain is a single 5 mile exploratory tunnel.

Fast forward to 2017 – Representative John Shimkus (R) introduced H.R.3053 - Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017. H.R. 3053 would restart the forced siting of a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The bill also calls for the creation of “intermediate” storage sites for nuclear waste in the U.S., without working out the details of a comprehensive path to solve the nuclear waste problem. There is a great danger that these unsafe intermediate sites will become de facto permanent sites.

The opening of Yucca Mountain repository would launch a cross-country nuclear waste transportation project on an unprecedented scale. The spent nuclear fuel destined for Yucca is currently stored at 131 sites in 39 states. Over 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste is to be transported across 44 states— passing within half a mile of 50 million Americans—in over 90,000 shipments expanding over three decades. Routine radiation from passing casks would deliver small doses of radiation to the public within one-half mile of a truck or rail route.

This bill will not just put our nation’s nuclear waste policy on the wrong path, it ignores environmental concerns, Native American land rights and sovereignty, states’ rights to protect their residents and natural resources, and attempts to truncate public review in order to force inadequate solutions on the American people: Yucca Mountain and consolidated “interim” storage–both of which have proven to be unworkable. It does nothing to make storing and managing nuclear waste less dangerous, wherever it is.

The bill has passed through committees and the House, but it appears that it may be stalled in the Senate.

See also on this website San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace Positions on Consolidated Interim Storage and On-Site Storage.