How safe is Yucca nuclear waste site?

BY RACHEL CLARK | BALTIMORE | August 2, 2002



"To not know for sure what's going to happen to a deadly poison that will be around for 10,000 years is a desecration of God's earth."

—Rev. Ron Stief


A report in the Geophysical Research Letters journal Wednesday suggested the volcanic hazard to the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada is greater than previously thought.

Engineers working at the site say they are in a scientific dialogue with the authors of the article, but maintain that the site is still safe.

"It's (the article) an interesting perspective," said Patrick Rowe, a senior scientist engineer with Management Technical Services, a company contracted by the U.S. Department of Energy to work on the repository.

"However, it's not the perspective that we have on it."

Last week, President George W. Bush signed House Joint Resolution 87, allowing 77,000 tons of nuclear waste to be transferred from temporary storage locations across America to Yucca Mountain, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. His signature sealed the 60-39 Senate vote that overrode Nevada's veto and approved the waste-storage site.

According to researchers who published the report, an eruption of one of the seven volcanoes near the Yucca Mountain site could have "significant impact on human health and safety."

Scientists developed a physical model to study the potential impact of an eruption on the repository and hypothesized that magma rising from below the mountain would form a dike that would cut through and be diverted into several repository drifts.

"Based on their models, the scientists found that magma in the drifts could reach speeds on the order of 200-600 miles per hour filling parts of the repository with magma within a matter of hours of the initial eruption," said Emily Crum, spokesperson for the American Geophysical Union, in a press release.

The researchers found that the flowing magma might displace, heat and even break open canisters containing nuclear waste.

"The pressure associated with the magma could be sufficient to open new and existing fractures at Yucca Mountain, providing a conduit for material to reach the surface," according to Crum.

Rowe said the conditions reported in the journal article were improbable and that the probability of waste packages opening is extremely remote.

"It's so idealistic and just difficult to be able to say that (the scenario in the report) indeed we would be even close to representing the real situation we have," he said.

And even if conditions were close to what the report hypothesizes, Rowe said, the containers holding nuclear waste are designed to withstand the weight of a 13-ton rock and not breach.

"The waste packages are so durable and structurally strong, their likelihood of breaking open is very unlikely," he said. "We're talking about a 13-ton pyramid-shaped rock falling on this thing and not breaking that package."

Contrary to popular belief, Rowe said, the waste being stored in the repository is solid -- not liquid or gaseous -- so waste would have a hard time seeping into water supplies.

The Rev. Ron Stief, ministry and team leader of the Public Life and Social Policy Ministry Team of the United Church of Christ, has been bringing repository awareness to faith-based communities.

"We are not sure whether we have the best science to transport this [waste] and to store it in this particular facility," he said.

"It's safe where it is. Let's give science a chance to evolve and make sure we know what we're doing. To not know for sure what's going to happen to a deadly poison that will be around for 10,000 years is a desecration of God's earth."

But Rowe said the chances of people getting sick from radioactive material being transported through their town is miniscule.

"If a truck came through your community and you lived within 100 feet (of the waste transport route), over the 24 years it will take us to transport the 77,000 tons, and sat on your porch that entire time, your average annual exposure would be .25 millirams," Rowe said.

"If the truck is carrying radioactive waste, it takes the actual solid particle to reach you."

Since the waste containers are 10% waste and 90% structural shielding material, the chances of exposure are very slim, Rowe said. "I can't tell you how incredibly unlikely."

If the waste is transported by rail, which Rowe said is the preferred method of transport, the exposure to radiation would be less.

Despite reassurance from the Department of Energy, some faith-based community groups saw this latest report as further evidence that the storage facility was a bad idea.

"Twenty-five years ago, when they began to study this site it was extremely isolated," said Stief.

"But now it's located next to one of the fastest growing places in the country and by the time they start storing waste in there, there are going to be a lot more people there. You're putting a significant part of the U.S. population at risk."

Rowe responded to those concerns by stating that if a person was right near the repository after a volcanic eruption caused nuclear waste to reach the surface, however remote that might be, and that person farmed the land, drank the water and breathed the air for one entire year, that person would receive .1 milliram of radiation: 1/100 the annual recommended EPA guideline. According to Rowe, the EPA recommends people not receive more than 15 mrems a year.

"The average exposure of every American is 360 millirams per year from natural and man-made sources," Rowe said. "A chest x-ray is 15 millirams."

This latest study unearthed sentiment that those living around Yucca Mountain don't want the site there. Stief's branch of the church focuses much of their efforts on low-income communities, toxic waste and race.

"The Yucca Mountain dump is being located in a community that is very poor, and has a lot of Native Americans," he said. "And this is the Shoshone ancestral land. This is being placed there and they feel a tremendous spiritual vacuum."

The land, while still under dispute between Native Americans and the U.S. government, is considered sacred to tribal groups in the area.

"To place poison in the land that won't be gone for 10,000 years -- there's just no place in their thinking for that," Stief said.

Rob Cavenaugh, director of the Washington Office for Advocacy for the Unitarian Universalist Church, agreed.

"A lot of policy in this country related to pollutants or toxins directs them to poor communities," he said.

"I think this is just another example of that. You pick a place where people won't have the power to fight it or don't have the political support."

Cavenaugh, who said his organization has a long track record of speaking out on nuclear and environmental issues, said that the Unitarian Universalist Church also opposes racism.

"Our association has a commitment to anti-racism," he said. "Part of that commitment is respecting the rights of indigenous people to use their lands as they see fit -- particularly to environmental issues."

Concerns about earthquakes also hinder whole-hearted support for the project. In June, a 4.4 earthquake hit Little Skull Mountain, about 15 miles east of Yucca Mountain, said the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Web site.

According to Allen Benson, a spokesperson for the Energy Department, the Yucca site was not damaged by the quake.

"The 24 years of scientific studies at Yucca Mountain have taken an exhaustive look at the possibility of earthquakes. In fact, Yucca Mountain scientists have used earthquakes greater in magnitude than this morning's quake to study and design a nuclear waste repository," Benson said in a June press release. "Yucca Mountain repository designs could withstand a local earthquake with 1,000 times more energy than the one reported this morning and a regional earthquake with 30,000 times more energy than the one reported."

In April, President of Public Citizen Joan Claybrook spoke to the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on Energy and Commerce.

"The geology of the site is ill-suited to the task of containment," Claybrook said. "Yucca Mountain is a ridge of porous volcanic tuff, highly fractured as a result of seismic activity. Thirty-three earthquake faults are known to exist within and adjacent to the Yucca Mountain site, with additional fault lines expected to develop over time."

In spite of public outcry and criticism of the site, proponent of the storage facility, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, said that the site fills a critical need.

"Without Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste simply stays where it is," he said in a July press release. "However, by moving the process forward, we have the opportunity to dispose of nuclear waste that has piled-up at 131 sites in 39 states."

Stief offered an alternative: wait for science to prove that storing this toxic waste in Yucca Mountain is truly safe.

"There's no such thing as a good solution," he said. "In this case we've already done the damage. We just have to take care of it."

Rowe, who has spent over 20 years of his life on this project, said this storage facility is being designed with utmost care and that his team and the scientist who published the article are engaged in "scientist to scientist discussions" to learn from each other.

"I see what we're doing here continues to protect the safety and health of millions and millions of American," he said.


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Related Links:

Geophysical Research Letters journal

Yucca Mountain Project homepage

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

United Church of Christ Environmental Justice Page

Washington Office for Advocacy for the Unitarian Universalist Church

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