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[cdn-nucl-l] Next in saga over planned dumpsite: Debating list of 293 unresolved issues
Posted in the Las Vegas Sun on August 16, 2002 and at:
Next in saga over planned dumpsite: Debating list of 293 unresolved
By Benjamin Grove
LAS VEGAS SUN
The Energy Department has agreed to provide the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission with volumes of additional data on 293 topics related to the
Yucca Mountain project. The topics fall into nine categories:
Likelihood and consequences of a volcano
Evaluation of an earthquake
Long-term changes in the repository's environment
Predictions about waste containers, and how much waste might leak from
How heat and moisture interact inside the repository
The design of the repository
Groundwater flow under Yucca
How radioactive particles might be carried out of the repository
Total system performance -- how well the repository works as a waste
Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission
WASHINGTON -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's list of 293
"unresolved" scientific issues at Yucca Mountain often has been the
center of debate about the project.
To a layman, the list is virtually undecipherable, written in a secret
language of technical jargon.
To Nevada officials, the list is prose, a beautifully itemized catalog
of gaps in Energy Department research to make Yucca the world's first
high-level nuclear waste burial ground.
To Energy officials, the list is a guide that will help them fulfill NRC
requirements and win its approval.
During the next 17 months, the list -- a compilation of requests from
the commission for more information -- is expected to play a starring
role in the ongoing saga of Yucca as the Energy Department scrambles to
submit an application for a license to construct the dump.
Department officials view the 293 data requests as a collection of mere
loose ends, not "show-stoppers."
But Yucca critics say many will be difficult to answer, ultimately
casting even more doubt on the project they say has been plagued by
missing and flawed research.
"The DOE has not done good scientific work," said Arjun Makhijani, an
engineer who is the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
president and a longtime Yucca critic. "They have spent a lot of money,
and people tend to confuse the two. The $7 billion has not produced a
body of scientific evidence that supports Yucca Mountain."
The Energy Department fought for years to earn its final victory in
Congress, which came when the Senate approved Yucca in July. Now the
department faces an even more formidable hurdle than layman lawmakers:
an army of NRC scientists and engineers.
Nevada officials welcome the venue change, saying they have always had a
better chance of killing the project in a scientific or legal arena, as
opposed to a political one.
"There is no question in my mind that on a level playing field, under a
strict and impartial technical review, the site doesn't stand a chance,"
Nevada Nuclear Projects Agency Director Bob Loux said.
Still, state officials are skeptical of the commission, which is closely
tied to the pro-Yucca industry it regulates and not likely to be a
"neutral arbiter of fact," Loux said.
Many observers disagree, saying the Rockville, Md.-based NRC is staffed
by some of the nation's leading scientists who are committed to an
impartial Yucca review.
But observers also acknowledge that the five-member panel perched atop
the agency is under tremendous political pressure to approve the site.
"It's way too early to tell," if the NRC could ever reject Yucca based
on science, said Allison Macfarlane, director of a Yucca research
project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Energy Department officials are confident Yucca will hold up under NRC
scrutiny. They believe the site is backed by impressive scientific data,
with more on the way.
Scientists considered every future scenario at Yucca -- even ice ages
and flooding and devastating earthquakes, department officials say. None
of the research suggests that Yucca would fail to meet Environmental
Protection Agency standards within the next 10,000 years, they say.
"Some of the world's best scientists examined every aspect of (Yucca
Mountain)," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told lawmakers in May. He
told President Bush that he never would have recommended Yucca if it was
dangerous to the public, "including those Americans living in the
immediate vicinity, now and into the future."
But critics say the 293 issues prove the jury is still out.
Makhijani strongly believes in the concept of a geologic waste
repository, but argues research proves Yucca is a bad site.
"We need someone to stand up and say, 'The emperor has pretty skimpy
clothes,' " he said.
The list was cobbled together last year as the Energy Department was
finalizing many of its studies. The department spent 20 years compiling
thousands of studies and reports about the desert ridge's hydrology,
geology and history.
But department officials still didn't know if they had amassed enough
data for the NRC to consider their license application. They needed to
know if they were close.
So NRC staffers drew up an itemized accounting of notable "gaps" in the
What emerged in September was a 37-page document that listed the 293
gaps, often called "agreements." Both agencies agreed the department
would have to fork over more data on each issue -- in some cases, a lot
more -- before the NRC would consider it complete.
If the department coughs up all the necessary information, only then
will the NRC consider "docketing" the application and launching an
In the end, the NRC -- not the Energy Department -- will "resolve"
whether the department's data supports its case that Yucca is a safe
site to permanently bury the nation's most radioactive waste, according
to NRC high-level waste chief Janet Schlueter.
The 293 data requests vary widely. For example, the NRC wants supporting
data on how the Energy Department approached evaluating seismic risks;
additional documents on metal waste container corrosion tests; and more
information on "thermohydrologic flow" -- how heat affects moisture in
Officials sorted the 293 points into nine groups called "key technical
issues," which insiders call KTIs. For example, one group consists of 23
requests for more information about how the design of the underground
repository will affect heat and moisture inside it. Placing
heat-emitting waste containers closer together would make the
repository's temperature higher. The Energy Department has not yet
chosen a "hot" or "cold" design.
The groups closely mirror many issues that Nevada officials for years
have said made Yucca a bad place to bury waste.
Hydrology: "The best way to think of it is to follow the water,"
Macfarlane said. She supports the concept of a geologic waste dump, but
has criticized much of the Energy Department's research, including
studies of whether water flow at Yucca may one day carry radioactive
particles outside the mountain.
"It's unknown how much rain might fall in the future and unclear how the
water moves through the repository now," she said.
Rain may seep through the mountain's cracks faster than expected,
critics say. That means water could enter the tunnels, even drip on the
metal containers, corroding even the most high-tech metals over time.
"We don't know what those travel times are with any precision. This is
an area of concern for the NRC. They would like to understand it
better," said Debra Knopman, a hydrology and systems analysis expert and
a member of the 11-person Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, an
independent panel created by Congress to watch Energy Department
The department disagrees. Less than a half an inch of rain a year seeps
beneath Yucca's surface, Abraham told Congress. "Our studies indicate
that the vast majority of water samples taken from (inside) the mountain
are thousands of years old."
Volcanoes: Even Nevada consultants say it's unlikely that ancient
volcanoes near Yucca could erupt during the next 10,000 years. But the
department should know a lot more about how likely -- and how damaging
-- "igneous activity" could be before they build a repository, Nevada
officials say. A study published last month by a team of Dutch, English
and U.S. scientists said molten rock could blast into the repository at
600 mph and fill it within hours if dormant volcanoes near Yucca awoke.
Department officials say the chance of an eruption is one in 70 million
each year for the next 10,000 years. Nevada officials don't trust that
"The probability of an eruption is pretty low," said Eugene Smith, a
University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor who is leading a
state-contracted study of eruption probability rates. "But I don't think
(the department) has calculated the probability of volcanic activity to
the satisfaction of the NRC."
Waste containers: Of the 293 points, 58 were requests for more
information about the giant metal casks that department officials say
will encapsulate waste for 10,000 years.
Nevada officials say the containers may be the biggest flaw in the
entire project, in part because the department plans to construct the
containers out of a newly developed nickel-based alloy often called
Not enough is known about the metal to form any "reasonable assurance"
that it won't rust or otherwise corrode, critics say.
"They are fighting Mother Nature for hundreds of thousands of years with
a metal that has just been discovered," Makhijani said.
Part of Nevada's legal effort to kill Yucca depends on the argument that
the Energy Department is relying too heavily on Alloy-22 containers to
isolate waste -- and not primarily on the mountain itself, which federal
law intended, state officials say.
The Energy Department plans to rely on mere "first-of-a-kind, man-made
contrivances," Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa argued in a
petition filed last month at the NRC, urging that it create stricter
Yucca licensing rules.
Alloy-22 is simply unproven over time, and scientists don't have enough
data to make accurate performance predictions, Joe Egan, one of the
state's lawyers, said.
"It's almost as if they are back to square one," Egan said. "You're back
to saying, 'We've got to have a container that lasts 10,000 years, now
what are we going to make it out of?' "
Department engineers sharply disagree that Alloy-22 would corrode. They
have been conducting three sets of tests on the metal, looking for signs
of cracking or corrosion. The primary test dates back five years in
which "hundreds, if not thousands" of 3- to 4-inch square Alloy-22
samples have been submerged in water with varying chemical compositions
at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, Energy
Department engineer Paige Russell said.
The bottom line: The tests show "extremely low rates" of general
corrosion that suggest an Alloy-22 waste container would not leak within
10,000 years, Russell said.
Department and nuclear industry officials also assert that their
scientific evidence proves they rely on Yucca geology and the waste
containers working "in concert," as Abraham put it.
"This project does not depend on a miracle metal," added Rod McCullum, a
senior project manager at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear
industry's top trade group.
It's not clear whether the department can gather all the necessary data
to satisfy the NRC by December 2004.
The General Accounting Office is skeptical. The investigative arm of
Congress concluded that the department needed until 2006 to adequately
finish its studies, based largely on information provided by project
contractor, Bechtel SAIC.
But Bechtel promptly rejected a draft version of the GAO report, which
Abraham said was "fatally flawed."
Department officials are optimistic. They laid out a timeline for
turning over all the research by December 2004. The department already
has complied with 52 points -- leaving 241.
At a recent meeting, Energy Department Yucca chief Margaret Chu told a
National Academy of Sciences panel that resolving every one by the end
of 2004 was among her highest priorities, but acknowledged, "There are
160 KTI that we haven't even started addressing."
George Hornberger, head of the NRC's Advisory Committee on Nuclear
Waste, which advises the commissioners on Yucca issues, said the
department seems to be on track.
"As the committee has followed the processes, we certainly haven't seen
any huge roadblocks that cause us to say, 'Wow, this is really stupid,'
" Hornberger said.
But the panel also has been critical of the project's science. In
September it issued a sharply worded report about the department's
"total system performance assessment," essentially the department's
analysis of whether Yucca works.
The report said the department "relies on modeling assumptions that mask
a realistic assessment of risk." And it said department "computations
and analyses are assumption-based, not evidence-supported."
That opinion hasn't changed much in the last year, but it certainly
could by 2004, Hornberger said.
Observers expect the 293 issues to be the beginning, not the end, of NRC
requests for information. It is notorious for poring over every detail,
industry insiders say.
"Just satisfying the NRC's thirst for information is not easy -- and it
shouldn't be," McCullum said.
In the days when the NRC was still licensing nuclear power plants, it
used to throw "books" of key technical questions at licensees, said
Robert Bernero, who spent six years overseeing plant safety at the
"Of course the NRC will find more issues that need to be resolved (at
Yucca)," said Bernero, a consultant and member of the National Academy's
Yucca panel. "This is just a list of initial issues."
Decades more work
Even if the Energy Department submits all the materials necessary to
satisfy the NRC by December 2004, reviews will continue for decades
after Yucca Mountain opens, advocates and opponents say.
The department plans to carry out a "performance confirmation program"
in which scientists will carefully monitor the mountain for signs of
flaws. That will go on until Yucca closes -- decades, even a century or
In addition, many advocates and opponents say in-depth scientific
research -- beyond routine monitoring -- should continue at Yucca for
generations. The extent of the research has not been defined and likely
will depend on how much Congress is willing to fund, observers say.
"The vast majority of the board would support a research and development
program that would extend well beyond the opening of the repository,
considering the significance of the uncertainties that exist," said Bill
Barnard, staff director of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board,
Congress' Yucca watchdog.
As part of its license application, the department must outline its
"performance confirmation plan." It's likely those plans will include
studies on the waste containers, including possible full-scale tests,
which have never been conducted, said Tim McCartin, a senior NRC adviser
for performance assessment.
Among other benefits, those long-term tests could be vital to proving
whether Alloy-22 is corrosion-proof, said Alberto Sagues, a University
of South Florida professor and metals corrosion expert and former member
of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. So far, the metal's
longevity is uncertain, he said.
"The question is, as time progresses, will the department be doing these
studies with the intensity that the problem demands?" Sagues said. "We
are dealing with such an unprecedented performance period that you can't
say, 'We've solved everything and now we're going to forget about it.' "
Of course, years after Yucca opens it will be difficult to cancel the
project even if ongoing studies uncover serious flaws, most observers
agree. But continued study will allow scientists to make necessary
"You don't have to pin every detail down," McCullum said. "That's a
tactic used by the (Yucca) opponents to try to nail down every answer so
that they have a target. If you have to make adjustments, you make
But Yucca critics fear the department's promises of ongoing study may be
designed to merely make a bad project more palatable to a doubting
"When I see the DOE promising a bunch more studies, I think: 'Why did
they make the (site recommendation) decision already? If they have
already decided (Yucca) is OK, then why are they planning this
research?' " Macfarlane said.
And Nevada officials say they don't want promises of a future science
experiment; they want all the answers before trucks and trains begin
hauling waste from all over America to the desert ridge 90 miles
northwest of Las Vegas.
"It's very bizarre," Loux said. "You would think that with a
first-of-its-kind project, they would want to have the whole thing
nailed down. It's like a Kafka novel."
For now, Energy Department officials are focused on meeting all of the
NRC's 293 demands. They expect that by the end of 2004, Congress'
Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board will offer a more optimistic
opinion of the science than one issued in January. In a widely discussed
finding then, the board concluded that the scientific evidence
supporting Yucca Mountain was "weak to moderate."
It's likely that assessment will improve by December 2004, Barnard said.
But it's not a guarantee.
"Sometimes," Barnard said. "more information creates more uncertainty."