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Myths and Facts about Yucca Mountain Legislation

Expect to begin hearing a lot more about pending Yucca Mountain legislation in the coming weeks. Senate Bill 2589 has been introduced to help ensure that the radioactive byproduct wastes of nuclear energy generation and defense will be safely and securely disposed of in a timely manner. In doing so, it will play a substantial role in securing our nation'’s energy supply and environmental future.

Of course not everything you hear about this bill will be true. What follows is a list of some of the common myths we have been hearing about the bill and the true facts that counter them.

Myth: The proposed legislation would weaken standards for Yucca Mountain.

Fact: The proposed legislation offers solutions that would help the Department of Energy move the Yucca Mountain project forward. The bill does not weaken any public health, safety, scientific or technical standards applicable to the project. These solutions add structure to the Yucca Mountain licensing process so that government agencies and others can evaluate the repository against the stringent standards that will be applied to the project in a more straightforward manner.

Additionally, these solutions would clarify regulations that, if misapplied, could add unnecessary complexity and delay to the process with no benefit to public safety or environmental protection. Far from weakening standards, these improvements make the decision-making process based on these standards more effective and understandable to all stakeholders.

Myth: DOE's flawed science has cast doubt on validity of work at Yucca Mountain.

Fact: The federal government has spent more than 20 years and $8 billion to determine that Yucca Mountain is an appropriate site for the nation's repository. DOE'’s 2002 recommendation of the Yucca Mountain site was based on the results of the most extensive scientific and technical inquiry ever conducted by the U.S. government. An international peer review conducted jointly by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development'’s Nuclear Energy Agency found that the methodology DOE used was "“soundly based" and "“implemented in a competent manner."”

The scientific work supporting this evaluation has involved more than 2,500 scientists from every national laboratory and the world'’s leading universities working in an underground laboratory that includes seven miles of tunnels and more than 180 boreholes. In addition to the international peer review, this work also has been reviewed by the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other authorities. During these reviews, DOE answered several specific concerns. No reputable scientific or technical organization has ever characterized DOE'’s science -- —or any part of the science applied to Yucca Mountain -- as "flawed."”

Myth: New cases of fraud related to the Yucca Mountain project continue to surface.

Fact: No documented cases of fraud at Yucca Mountain exist. This myth has centered on the recent disclosure of e-mails, exchanged more than five years ago, alleging that a small group of U.S. Geological Survey employees working on the project did not follow quality assurance (QA) procedures. The issue now is undergoing a thorough investigation. DOE is examining millions of e-mails written over the history of the project. No organization of any type has ever subjected its electronic communications to this level of scrutiny.

And the Yucca Mountain project has withstood it successfully. Although embarrassing e-mails have been identified, none has cast substantive doubt on the scientific work. In fact, DOE recently released a report prepared by an independent team of scientists. It confirmed the data called into question by the original USGS e-mails is indeed correct. Nonetheless, to further verify the scientific work at Yucca Mountain, DOE has designated the Sandia National Laboratory and Oak Ridge Associated Universities to independently review the data.

Myth: DOE has admitted that geology is not a sufficient barrier to contain the waste.

Fact: DOE has never made such a statement. Opponents of the repository often incorrectly attribute DOE'’s inclusion of robust engineered barriers in the repository design, as evidence that the agency is compensating for inadequacies in the site'’s geology. The truth is that scientists and policymakers always have intended that the repository consist of a combination of natural and engineered barriers to provide the greatest possible protection. In fact, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 mandates that DOE'’s site recommendation include "preliminary engineering specifications." The act also requires an explanation of the relationship between "“packaging" and "“the geologic medium of the site."”

DOE's engineered barriers perform well at Yucca Mountain precisely because of their integration with a geology that is uniquely well-suited for the long-term isolation of radioactive materials. DOE'’s 2002 site recommendation, approved by President Bush and Congress, made this clear. A U.S. appellate court soundly rejected challenges by Yucca Mountain opponents, who based their case on this myth.

Myth: The NRC found that the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory overestimated the ability of metals to contain waste.

Fact: This statement mischaracterizes what Livermore identified. The NRC actually found that the lab had used an uncalibrated piece of equipment in the collection of data in corrosion rate studies. While any data collected using this piece of equipment must be considered suspect, the NRC has drawn no specific conclusion regarding the data'’s accuracy. Even if the data is incorrect, one could not possibly draw such a far-reaching conclusion from the error. This piece of equipment is merely one of thousands of instruments used in hundreds of studies to evaluate the corrosion resistance of metals. DOE has established processes for evaluating any impact the uncalibrated equipment had on scientific results. It is premature to draw any conclusions until these processes have been completed and independently verified.

Myth: Bechtel-SAIC stopped work as a result of a whistleblower incident.

Fact: DOE actually stopped Bechtel SAIC work because a list of applicable requirements to that work had not been kept up-to-date. An employee unable to gain management attention -- —a whistleblower -- —did not identify this issue. Rather, DOE'’s own internal management identified it. In fact, the stop-work order itself is evidence that DOE'’s systems for identifying such issues worked properly. All nuclear projects have such systems, and managers must take decisive action. In this case, they did.

Myth: The U.S. Geological Survey "“altered and omitted" data.

Fact: No one has ever even alleged that the USGS altered and omitted data. Whether some USGS employees failed to follow quality assurance procedures in collecting data is under investigation. In the nuclear energy industry, failure to follow procedures is a significant offense. However, it is not the same as altering and omitting data. E-mails sent by these employees appear to reflect a disregard for procedure; however, they also display a high confidence in the integrity of their work and accuracy of the data.

Because of the seriousness of this matter, DOE launched an independent investigation of this work. This investigation recently resulted in a report, prepared by an independent team of scientists, which corroborated the data. In spite of the failure to follow procedure, the fundamental scientific understanding that resulted from this work has been confirmed.

Myth: DOE should not have unlimited access to the Nuclear Waste Fund.

Fact: The legislation does not propose giving DOE unlimited access to the Nuclear Waste Fund. Congress still must approve all appropriations for the Yucca Mountain program. The legislation provides that new fee-generated income into the fund will offset appropriations for budget scoring purposes. Although Congress maintains control of the fund, the legislation ensures that contributions to the fund will be used for their intended purpose of waste disposal.

Myth: Reclassifying the Nuclear Waste Fund is a budget gimmick that reduces spending and hides costs artificially.

Fact: Actually, the reclassification of the Nuclear Waste Fund proposed by this legislation would do just the opposite: It would restore the fund to the budget treatment established in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Congress previously has acted to address similar situations for other dedicated trust funds. This legislation seeks not to create a budget gimmick, but to remove one.

Watch this space for more Yucca Mountain news in the coming weeks and months.

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Anonymous said…
USGS is United States Geological Survey, not United States Geological Society.
Eric McErlain said…
Thanks, we've updated the post.
Thanks for elevating the discourse.
Anonymous said…
Money spent on Yucca does not guarantee it will be wisely used. "W'" father spent a lot of money to send him to Yale but he was only a C student.
Lance from Virginia said…
One would think that after decades of watching the federal government mismanage, bungle, and ultimately bring the Yucca Mountain project to the brink of failure, NEI and the nuclear power industry would be leading the charge for new thinking and new directions in the search for spent fuel solutions. Instead, we see NEI desperately trying to bail out a failed program. At this point in the history of federal spent fuel management programs, there is only one "myth" that matters - the myth that Yucca Mountain can be made to work by legislative 'fixes.' That's been attempted before, and it has been a resounding failure on all counts. The Yucca program is so flawed and broken that it cannot be fixed, and the industry would be much better served by acknowledging that "fact".
Anonymous said…
A very useful and informative summary. It is easy to trace virtually all of these myths--and their countless repetition--to the Las Vegas press. I find it difficult for a student of the nuclear waste issue to receive any unbiased information from the news media in southern Nevada.

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