Hearings - Testimony
Full Committee
Oversight Hearing on the Status of the Yucca Mountain Project
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
Senator John Ensign

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the second proposed rule concerning Yucca Mountain radiation standards. This rule, on its face, does not make sense. And the closer one looks, the worse it appears.


I understand that the EPA was in a difficult position. The original EPA Yucca rule and the subsequent NRC standard were thrown out by a federal appeals court. The Court found that the 10,000-year compliance period was not “based upon and consistent with” the NAS recommendations required by law. It failed to protect at the point when the waste would be at its peak radiation. So what did the EPA do?

Well, EPA did not put forth a common-sense solution. That would have been to extend the 15-millerem-per-year standard that it originally proposed in order to cover the peak dose period as required by the Court. We know why EPA did not do this. It didn’t do it because Yucca Mountain could not be engineered to meet that standard. Yucca Mountain could not be built.

Instead, the EPA took the old standard that was rejected by the Court, reproposed it in its entirety for the first 10,000 years, and then proposed a standard for the 10,000 to 1,000,000-year period that would be, by far, the weakest peak dose standard in the world. The President of the National Council on Radiation Protection has publicly opposed it. So, once again, sound science was sacrificed for expediency.

The Agency for Nuclear Projects of the State of Nevada has done an excellent, thorough analysis of this scientifically indefensible approach. I know that you will be hearing today from the Executive Director, Bob Loux, who will explore the weaknesses of the rule in detail, so I will not do so here. I will, however, underscore that it is important for this Committee to look at several areas—the two-tiered radiation exposure limits, the use of mean performance results in the first 10,000 years and then median performance results later, the groundwater protection standard that disappears before the period of peak exposure, and the odd decision to set a health-based standard that relies on comparing radiation doses in Amargosa Valley, Nevada, to Colorado.

There are some who believe that Congress should ignore the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences and simply lower the safety standards for the permanent storage of this deadly material. Senator Reid and I are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen. But in a broader sense, legislation won’t make nuclear waste safe—and burying it in Yucca Mountain definitely won’t make the problem go away. Even with a central repository, there will continue to be nuclear waste stored at all operating reactor sites. Mr. Chairman, we produce 2,000 metric tons of nuclear waste a year. The DOE plans to transport 3,000 metric tons a year. Just do the math. Under the current plan, we won’t get rid of the nuclear waste backlog for nearly a century.

Mr. Chairman, Yucca Mountain continues to be plagued with problems and delays. The Department of Energy no longer even pretends to know when Yucca could open or how much it will cost. DOE once again has stopped work at Yucca Mountain after an NRC audit revealed that several years of data collection was done with equipment that had not been calibrated. These data are critical to health and safety because they relates to how water could enter the repository and cause corrosion of the nuclear waste storage casks. We need to find another solution to our nuclear waste problem. I think that we need to amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to require the title to all spent nuclear fuel, stored in dry casks, to be passed on to the DOE upon on-site transfer from storage pools to casks. Senator Reid and I introduced legislation to allow the DOE to assume liability of the waste onsite before it is transferred to Yucca Mountain. Conveying the title means the DOE will have full responsibility for the possession, stewardship, maintenance, and monitoring of all spent nuclear fuel. Through the Act, the DOE would also be made responsible for various maintenance and oversight that would be associated with implementation.

Furthermore, we need to invest in new technologies at our national labs to recycle the waste without producing weapons-grade plutonium as a byproduct. A potentially viable option to "recycle" nuclear waste is Accelerator-driven Transmutation of Waste (ATW). Simply put, ATW transforms long-lived radioactive products into less hazardous materials and generates electricity as a byproduct. After 300 years, the residual activity and radiotoxicity of waste in the repository following the ATW process would be less than that for a non-assisted repository after 100,000 years. We know that we can store waste safely for 300 years. It can’t be certain that Yucca Mountain will prove safe at the time of peak dose radiation as truly needed to protect the health of our citizens.

Mr. Chairman, this new proposed radiation standard is a farce. EPA was forced to create this ridiculous standard to make Yucca Mountain “work” on paper. But that’s not EPA’s job. And no amount of data manipulation is going to make Yucca Mountain work.

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