Hearings - Testimony
 
Full Committee
Oversight Hearing on the Status of the Yucca Mountain Project
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
 
Senator Harry Reid
(D-NV)

I want to thank the Chair, the Ranking and other members of the Committee for the opportunity to testify today on this issue, which is very important to me, my home State of Nevada and the rest of the country.

 

I am convinced that the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump will never be built because of the myriad scientific, safety and technical problems in which it is mired. It simply is neither safe nor secure, as illustrated by several significant scientific, legal and budgetary setbacks this past year and a half.

Nuclear power plants and defense activities generate highly radioactive waste materials that remain toxic for thousands of years. Consequently, society must develop a secure way to store high-level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel rods that protects human health and the environment.

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to address the difficult issue of storing such waste. The Act called for disposal of nuclear waste in a deep geological repository that would remain stable for thousands of years and directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to study a number of sites in detail and pick the most suitable site based on the natural features of the site. The Act instructed DOE to develop a list of natural, geologic features that constitute a safe repository, including factors pertaining to rock characteristics, hydrology, proximity to water supplies and population, and seismic activity. Some of these criteria specifically disqualified any site that would require complex engineered measures to prevent groundwater flow through the repository or damage from earthquake activity, both of which are concerns at Yucca Mountain.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 directed DOE to evaluate three sites – in Washington, Texas and Nevada. Under the Act, the geologic characteristics of a site were supposed to prevent radioactive waste from escaping the storage facility. Using the original criteria for site suitability in the Act, the characteristics described above should have disqualified Yucca Mountain from consideration as a repository for high-level nuclear waste.

DOE has proposed that 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste can be stored in tunnels beneath the mountain, isolated from the environment for at hundreds of thousands of years. Yucca Mountain is a volcanic ridge in southwest Nevada, about 90 miles from Las Vegas. Yucca Mountain is located only about 90 southwest from Las Vegas – the fastest growing city in the U.S.

As DOE research progressed, it became clear that geology alone would not contain radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, and DOE began to design engineered waste containers to compensate for geologic weaknesses that would have disqualified the site under the 1982 Act.

Then, in 1987, Congress amended the Act to limit DOE’s studies to Yucca Mountain. This move was not based on science. In fact, DOE was behind schedule on its characterizations of the three sites and had reached no conclusion on the suitability of any of them. Rather, Congress took action based on political expediency and cost considerations. Since 1987, DOE’s mission has shifted from objectively evaluating whether a site was suitable to isolate radioactive waste to justifying Yucca Mountain as a safe site for storing nuclear waste.

On February 15, 2002, President Bush approved a recommendation from Secretary of Energy Abraham to build an underground storage facility for high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Governor Guinn of Nevada vetoed the site in April of 2002. On June 9, 2002, Congress overrode the veto.

Although DOE has been studying the site for 20 years, their studies are incomplete and do not provide a basis for evaluating whether Yucca Mountain is a safe site for storing high-level nuclear waste, nor that it can be transported across America’s highways and railways and through our communities safely.

Before transporting nuclear waste across the country’s highways, rails, and waterways, adequate consideration must be given to the risks of, and we must be prepared to deal with, accidents, terrorist threats and containment breaches that may result. To date, we are not. Bad science, bad law and bad policy are what characterize Yucca Mountain and the decisions around transportation issues. The result is that transportation of highly radioactive nuclear waste around the country and to Yucca poses extraordinary hazards to the public health, economic security and environmental safety.

Moving all the high-level nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain and a second repository would take nearly 40 years and involve 105,000 truck shipments, or nearly 20,000 rail shipments over more than 40 years. Moving just the waste currently allowed by law to go to Yucca Mountain would involve nearly 53,000 truck shipments or 10,000 rail shipments over 24 years. As most of the waste in generated east of the Mississippi, that means most waste will be traveling across the country. Tens of thousands of shipments of deadly radioactive waste, an average of approximately 2,800 each year, will be rolling through neighborhoods in 43 states and hundreds of major metropolitan areas on its way to Nevada for the next several decades. Approximately 125 million people live in the more than 700 counties on DOE’s highway routes, and approximately 110 million live on the train routes.

Communities through which nuclear waste could pass include: Sacramento and San Bernardino, CA; Denver, CO; Boise, ID; the Chicago metropolitan area; the Washington, DC, metropolitan area; Buffalo, NY; and Las Vegas, Nevada. If you live within 1.5 miles of a highway or railway, you live within 1.5 miles of a possible nuclear waste delivery-route.

Because of the enormous number of individual loads involved, the government has acknowledged that there will be accidents no matter what we do. The effects could be catastrophic. One accident, one nuclear waste leakage or spillage, could be deadly. According to DOE, an accident or fire involving a 25-ton payload of nuclear waste could kill thousands immediately. The potential lasting effects are likely more significant, from radiation-induced cancers to poisoned ground water. The clean up costs could be in the billions. Other analyses show that contamination could spread anywhere from 40 to 500 square miles and latent cancer fatalities run into the tens of thousands, depending on the type of accident, transportation and population patterns in the area and the type of clean-up undertaken.

Shipping nuclear waste across the country also significantly increases the risk of terrorist attack. Unfortunately, the last few years have taught us that we are not immune from terrorist attack and that terrorists are getting more sophisticated. In addition, this is a large-scale, high profile federal program – an attractive target for terrorists. Each shipment has the potential for hijack.

Imagine literally hundreds of moving targets all across America passing through towns just like this one. If waste is transported through a combination of methods, the casks will have to be switched out, parked on a siding, unloaded and reloaded from and into, barges, trains and trucks. Waste would be vulnerable to attack during packaging, shipment, temporary storage, repackaging, and in a national repository where nuclear waste will be stored above-ground for several years awaiting placement in the repository. Each shipment could be sabotaged to crash in populated areas or blown up with black-market high explosives or a missile in order to create what military scientists refer to as a dirty bomb.

Terrorism experts have termed DOE’s planned transportation effort as a “target rich environment where a terrorist could pick and chose the time and place for an attack.” 1 Unfortunately, DOE and the NRC are not been willing to take the necessary steps to secure the safety and security of nuclear waste shipments.

As Governor of Texas, President Bush wrote, “I believe sound science, not politics, must prevail in the designation of any high-level nuclear waste repository. As President, I would not sign legislation what would send nuclear waste to any proposed site unless it’s been deemed scientifically safe.” As President, Mr. Bush is apparently willing to endanger the health and safety of millions of Americans by letting politics and bad science prevail in the decision to site a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Clearly, the push for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository waste has been driven more by politics and bureaucratic bias than by science.

Some of the highlights of the scientific and technical problems that have plagued the Yucca Mountain project the last year and a half alone include:

· On July 9, 2004, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the people of Nevada in a lawsuit to stop the proposed Yucca Mountain project. The court held that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s radiation standard for the site was not stringent enough to protect the public from the significant risks associated with nuclear waste and failed to follow the recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences.

 

· On August 31, 2004, the Nuclear Regulator Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board rejected DOE’s Yucca Mountain document database, saying it had failed to make public many of the documents that it had in its possession. The Board said, “Given the 15 years that DOE had to gather, review, and produce its documents and the fact that the date of production, and the incompleteness of its privilege review, it is clear to us that DOE did not meet its obligation, in good faith, to make all reasonable efforts to make all documentary materials available.”

· On October 4, 2004, the DOE Inspector General found that DOE has given away more than $500,000 worth of Yucca Mountain construction equipment in 2003. Half a million dollars is a tremendous amount of the people’s money to waste.

· On November 22, 2004, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board said DOE does not have a plan for safely transporting nuclear waste to the proposed repository.

· On February 7, 2005, Dr. Margaret Chu, most recently the Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, said the project would be delayed until 2012 and that DOE’s license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would not be filed until December 2005, delayed another year. To date, the license application still has not been filed.

· On February 8, 2005, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board called for hearings to review concerns over the corrosion of the titanium drip shields that are intended to keep water from leaking into casks inside Yucca Mountain.

· On February 28, 2005, a DOE official said the proposed Yucca Mountain repository may not open until 2015.

· On March 16, 2005, DOE revealed that documents and models about water infiltration at Yucca Mountain, a key issue, had been falsified.

· On July 18, 2005, DOE announced that it will use dedicated train service for its rail transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to Yucca Mountain, a shift from two decades of administration policy that ignores the fact that about one-third of reactor sites are not capable of shipping fuel by rail.

· On August 22, 2005, EPA published its revised radiation standards for the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level waste dump. These standards are wholly inadequate, do not meet the law’s requirements and do not protect public health and safety. In fact, EPA is proposing the least protect public health radiation standard in the world, a standard that is forty times weaker than the public health standard for low level radiation. This proposal is unacceptable and will needlessly expose people to the risk of horrible adverse effect for generations. Please see the comments that Senator Ensign and I submitted to the EPA and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NSC), which I have attached to this statement.

· On October 6, 2005, the DOE Inspector General (IG) found that DOE repeatedly gave business to Bechtel Corporation din spite of poor work performance. According to the IG, DOE paid Bechtel $4 million in “incentive based fees” even though “Bechtel did not meet contract specifications.”

· On October 13, 2005, DOE asked staff to develop a series of actions to overhaul the Yucca Mountain project, going back to the drawing board and revisiting proposals discarded decades ago as unsafe or unworkable.

· On October 25, 2005, DOE announced that it would be redesigning the spent fuel storage process, both the containers and surface facilities – admitting that their previous design was neither clean nor uncontaminated. DOE has offered scant details on the redesign.

· On November 16, 2005, the DOE Inspector General announced that DOE has ignored numerous of admitted instances of falsification of technical and scientific data on the project, showing that years of quality assurance problems continue.

· On November 17, 2005, DOE sent a detailed letter to its contractor regarding some of the desired changes in the site proposal, but still has not provided details to Congress or the public.

· On November 19, 2005, the Energy and Water Appropriations bill became law, cutting the Yucca Mountain budget to $577 million, half of what DOE said it would need to keep the project on track.

· At the December 7, 2005, at the NRC-DOE quarterly meeting on Yucca Mountain, DOE announced that it expects to re-baseline the project mid-2006, requiring many of the technical and scientific analyses to be redone. There is still no timeline for when DOE will file its license application.

· On December 14, 2005, DOE suspended work on the surface facilities because of quality assurance concerns with the work of its contractor, Bechtel. DOE has since extended Bechtel’s contract for work on Yucca Mountain.

· On January 30, 2006, concerns about the quality of the scientific work that is supposed to ensure the safety of waste stored at Yucca Mountain caused the NRC to issue a stop work order. The concerns are about the container’s corrosion rate studies; the measurements are flawed.

· On February 9, 2006, the National Academies of Science (NAS) found that in order to safely transport spent nuclear fuel several things must occur, none of which DOE is currently undertaking, including: it must be done with great care and all the existing regulatory requirements and guidelines must be followed; transportation must wait until it can be done almost entirely through dedicated train transport; the possibility of fires is investigated in more depth because of the unique safety concerns fires present; transportation routes are carefully selected based on safety and social concerns; NAS does a careful analysis of the security issues (terror risks, sabotage, etc); and full scale testing of casks.

· In addition, we expect that a Government Accountability Office report on quality assurance issues that will released in March to confirm the on-going quality assurance problems with the work by DOE and its contractors.

· In numerous media reports, DOE has confirmed that it is preparing a legislative package that addresses Yucca Mountain. According to reports, this proposal will remove health, safety and legal requirements, a clear admission that DOE cannot meet the current public health, safety and technical requirements.

It should be clear to anyone that the proposed Yucca Mountain project is a failure. It is based on unsound science and cannot meet the requirements of law. It is not going anywhere. Delay after delay costs the taxpayers billions and billions of dollars for a project that the courts have ruled does not meet sufficient safety or public health standards. I do not believe that Yucca Mountain will ever open, and Nevada and the country will be safer for our successful efforts to stop the project.

In addition, DOE has consistently underestimated the costs of the Yucca Mountain Project, and total cost projections have grown more by tens of billions since 1983. In several reports on total project costs, DOE has cautioned that its cost estimates are a snapshot in time, based on preliminary design, and should be expected to change as the repository design develops. If history is any guide, the more DOE learns about Yucca Mountain, the more it will cost to site a nuclear waste repository there and the more taxpayer money we will waste on a flawed proposal.

Yet, we must safely store spent nuclear fuel.

A 1979 study by the Sandia National Laboratory determined that, if all the water were to drain from a spent fuel pool, dense-packed spent fuel would likely heat up to the point where it would burst and then catch fire, releasing massive quantities of volatile radioactive fission products into the air. Both the short-term and the long-term contamination impacts of such an event could be significantly worse than those from Chernobyl. The consequences would be so severe and would affect such a large area that all precautions must be taken to preclude them. This is the type of serious, avoidable risk against which all the nation’s nuclear sites can and should be protected to counter terrorist threats.

It is time to look at other nuclear waste alternatives. Fortunately, the technology to realize a viable, safe and secure alternative is readily available and can be fully implemented within the next decade if we act now. That technology is dry cask storage.

The technology for long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel in dry storage casks has improved dramatically in the past 20 years. Seventeen cask designs have been licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which says that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored using dry cask storage on-site at the nuclear power plants for at least 100 years. Already, dry casks safely store spent nuclear fuel at 34 sites throughout the country, many of them near communities, water ways and transportation routes. The Nuclear Energy Institute has projected 83 of the 103 active reactors will have dry storage by 2050.

Compared to water-filled pools, dry storage casks are significantly less vulnerable to natural and human-induced disasters, including floods, tornadoes, temperature extremes, sabotage, and missile attacks. In addition, dry storage casks are not subject to drainage risks, whether intentional or accidental.

On March 28, 2005, the Washington Post revealed that a classified National Academy of Sciences report concluded that the government does not fully understand the risks a terrorist attack could pose to spent nuclear fuel pools and that it ought to expedite the removal of the fuel to dry storage casks that are more resilient to attack.

Senator Ensign and I have a bill that would do this – The Spent Fuel On-site Storage and Security Act of 2006, S. 2099. Our bill requires commercial nuclear utilities to safely transfer spent nuclear fuel from temporary storage in water-filled pools to secure storage in licensed, on-site dry cask storage facilities. After transferal, the Secretary of Energy would take title and full responsibility for the possession, stewardship, maintenance, and monitoring of all spent fuel thus safely stored. Finally, our bill establishes a grant program to compensate utilities for expenses associated with transferring the waste. The costs of transferring the waste and providing the grants will be offset by withdrawals from the utility-funded Nuclear Waste Fund, stopping the double payments taxpayers are making for the storage of nuclear waste. No longer would they pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund when they pay their utility bills, then pay again as taxpayers when the government pays the utilities for the cost of on-site storage. Taxpayers should not have to pay twice.

Nuclear facilities currently provide 20 percent of our nation’s electricity, but in light of the events of September 11, they also present a security risk that we simply must address. There cannot be any weak links in the chain of security of our nation’s nuclear power infrastructure. There is absolutely no justification for endangering the public by densely packing nuclear waste in vulnerable spent fuel pools or in rushing headlong towards a repository that is fraught with scientific, technical and geological problems when it can be stored safely and securely in dry casks. Our bill guarantees all Americans that our nation’s nuclear waste will be stored in the safest way possible.

Instead of sticking to the commitment that Yucca Mountain, or any storage of spent nuclear fuel, would be based on sound science, this administration has cast sound science aside in favor of political expediency in the myopic and dangerous pursuit of Yucca Mountain. It is time we addressed to problem at hand – the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel – and stopped pouring taxpayers’ money down the drain on a project that could endanger all of our citizens. Yucca Mountain is a failure. ______________________________________________
1 Testimony of James David Ballard, Ph.D., Consultant, on behalf of the State of Nevada on “Transportation of Spent Fuel Rods to the Proposed Yucca Mountain Storage Facility” before the Subcommittees on Highways and Transit and Railroads Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, United States House of Representatives, April 25, 2002.

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