WASHINGTON—A preliminary environmental analysis of the Yucca Mountain, Nev., site under consideration as a repository for used nuclear fuel confirms the scientific consensus that high-level radioactive waste can be disposed of safely in an underground facility. In so doing, the draft environmental impact statement prepared by the U.S. Department of Energy takes the nation a giant step closer to a policy decision scheduled for July 2001 on the use of Yucca Mountain in the government's nuclear waste management program.
The draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) further shows that the potential environmental impacts resulting from repository operations at Yucca Mountain "are so small as to have essentially no adverse impact on public health and safety," the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) said in comments submitted to the federal government.
"Long-term radiation levels associated with the repository are shown to be less than one percent of naturally occurring background (radiation levels)," said Steven Kraft, director of spent nuclear fuel management at NEI. The additional annual radiation levels from operation of the site over thousands of years would be less than the radiation exposure a person would receive from roundtrip coast-to-coast air line flight.
Kraft said the Energy Department's environmental analysis "contains significant and compelling scientific evidence that supports moving forward with a repository at Yucca Mountain." However, improved presentation of many elements of the DEIS would serve the dual purpose of helping the public to better understand the environmental analysis and helping Congress and the White House to make needed policy decisions regarding the federal government's nuclear waste management program, he said.
"Our expert review of the impressive collection of scientific evidence encompassed by this DEIS finds that it supports what the world's pre-eminent scientists have long agreed upon: that deep geologic disposal is a safe way to manage used nuclear fuel… (But) it is imperative that the Department of Energy improve its presentation of this evidence, so that it can also be better understood and evaluated outside the scientific community," Kraft said.
In addition, the Energy Department should better explain the chain of events that led to the focus on Yucca Mountain as a possible repository for used fuel from commercial nuclear power plants and high-level radioactive waste from U.S. defense programs. Yucca Mountain is a barren mountain ridge located on the federal Nevada Test Site, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"This environmental study is not an isolated event in the Yucca Mountain decision-making process," Kraft said. "Congress was fully cognizant of the considerable previous study of alternatives when, in 1987, it directed the Department of Energy to study only Yucca Mountain and, in 1992, reaffirmed this direction."
Notwithstanding such suggestions, "the document's basis in scientific fact and state-of-the-art analysis is truly impressive," Kraft said. "This research should give decision-makers confidence in the ability of the proposed repository to safely store nuclear fuel and protect public health and safety."
The repository, which is scheduled to open in 2010 at the earliest, is permitted under federal law to store 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste. Currently, about 40,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel is being stored at 72 commercial nuclear power plant sites in 33 states. Only about 2,000 metric tons of used fuel is produced each year at 103 nuclear power reactors in the process of producing one-fifth of U.S. electricity. A national policy decision on Yucca Mountain is needed to keep the repository program on track for a 2010 opening.
Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the federal government was obligated to begin disposing of used nuclear fuel no later than Jan. 31, 1998, yet the federal govern-ment still has not met its obligation to begin stewardship of the fuel.
Already, more than 30 nuclear reactors have exhausted existing storage capacity in on-site used fuel pools. Forty-one reactors are using or are developing on-site dry storage technology to supplement the fuel pools, a multimillion-dollar expense being imposed on consumers, who already are paying the federal government via a charge on their monthly electric bills for the federal repository program. Since 1983, consumers of nuclear-generated electricity have committed more than $16 billion to the federal government for this program.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at http://www.nei.org.