This is a 13 million year-old volcanic ridge called Yucca Mountain. A 5.0 earthquake had rocked the area and did some damage to the media reception area, display center, cafeteria and office complex. Repairs and seismic improvements were estimated to cost approximately $2 million. A second 4.4 quake struck this volcanic area on June 4, 2002, centered 12 ½ miles away. It caused no damage. There are 39 earthquake falts and 7 young volcanoes in the area around the mountain. DOE had originally said that the area might expect an earthquake about every 10,000 years.
This geologic zone has been studied and monitored by Department of Energy project scientists for over 24 years. Representatives of the project have been assuring the public that Yucca Mountain is stable and that burying 77,000 tons of spent radioactive fuel rods and high level waste would be safe 600 to 950 feet under the mountain. There is a main tunnel sloping downward, and around the 600 ft. level, a grid of smaller tunnels start and travel down to about 950 feet, with storage rooms branching off of those smaller tunnels.
As little as one millionth of a gram will cause cancer if breathed in or entering your body or blood stream by way of a cut or other openings in the skin.
Plutonium 239 isotopes have a ½ life of 22,000 years, it needs to be kept isolated out of the air and water for a very long time. The most often used figure by project DOE spokesmen is 10,000 years, a figure that may be grossly underestimated.
Strontium 90, for instance, has a half life of 30 years which means half of its radioactivity will decay in 30 years. It will then take another 30 years for half of the remaining radioactivity to decay and then an additional 30 years for half of that to decay and on and on. So when it's said that Strontium 90 has a half life of 30 years, it means it will remain dangerous for hundreds of years, even at low levels.
Government scientists initially believed that water would take 9,000 to 80,000 years to flow from the repository to the water table far below. In 1997 researchers discovered fractures in the rock where water flows much faster. Scientists found traces of chlorine-36 which does not exist in nature, in the five mile tunnel drilled to explore the mountain's rock. That material is produced by nuclear explosions, most of which took place at the nearby test facility. In less than 60 years it had already traveled through 800 feet of rock. In 1996 the Energy Department said that some water could go from the waste repository level to the water table 1,300 feet down, in 50 years.
The most critical challenge that faces the Energy Department is designing a container capable of keeping the waste not only isolated from the corrosive effects of water and the environment, but also from the damage caused to the containers by the radioactive material held inside them for 10,000 years. It is possible that rain water could seep down through cracks and fissures in the volcanic mountain, percolating on by the stored material on its way to the water table far below. That water eventually flows off site where it feeds wells and surfaces as springs.
But in the end, it may be the wind that poses the most danger with the possibility of spreading radioactive particles over large areas of land.
At the Hanford Plutonium Production Facility in Washington State, the Department of Energy has admitted releasing 557,000 curies of radioactivity material, mostly Iodine 131 for the years 1944, 1945, 46 and 47. Up to 270,000 men, women and children were exposed as downwinders. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, show that biological agents were released upon an unsuspecting public in San Francisco and in the New York subway system during the 1960's.
Under the direction of Richard Helms, the CIA had a program called MK-ULTRA in which it would conduct drug experiments upon members of the military and U.S. citizens without their knowledge or consent.
The report was completed and released in 1995 admitting government responsibility and that it was wrong to commit such acts on unaware subjects during the Cold War. Still only a few have been compensated for their pain and suffering; while for most, it was too late for reparations, their time had run out.
On October 30, 2002 it was reported that the U.S. admitted conducting experiments involving small amounts of the highly toxic nerve gas, sarin. They were conducted in the U.S, Hawaii and Panama, again on the public without their knowledge, during the cold war years.
Unless one is exposed to high concentrations of radiation, it is sometimes difficult to determine the cause of illness because of the delayed effects after exposure. To complicate this, there are the numerous kinds of radiation that react differently on different parts of the body. Iodine 131 is short lived and dangerous for a matter of weeks and will collect in the thyroid. Strontium 90 on the other hand is dangerous for hundreds of years and will collect in the bones causing leukemia. Cesium 137 is also dangerous for about the same period of time and will accumulate in the muscle tissue.
In those early years of the Cold War, the possible health effects of these tests were suppressed out of national security considerations.
It's estimated that over 300 million curies currently remain in the soil at the Nevada test site. A curie is a measure of how many atoms per second are decaying and emitting particles and rays. 10 curies of Cesium 137 would be enough to contaminate about 200 city blocks.
Yucca Mountain is expected to hold between 10 and 15 times that amount, if only 77,000 tons are buried there (3 to 41/2 billion curies).
Once again, security considerations seem to be driving a process that may have tragic consequences for many unaware inhabitants of large portions of the U.S. This time it is spent nuclear fuel rods and high-level waste stored around the U.S. at 131 sites in 39 states that would be destined for Yucca Mountain. Most of these fuel rods are currently stored on site at 103 operating nuclear power plants near densely populated areas. One hundred sixty one million people currently live within 75 miles of one or more of these sites.
In a commercial reactor designed to produce electricity, a controlled chain reaction takes place within the reactor's core by splitting atoms of uranium. This creates a great amount of heat in the uranium-filled fuel rods and a variety of products that are highly unstable which give off gamma rays and sub atomic particles. The heat is then used to boil water; the steam then turns a turbine which is connected to a generator that produces electricity.
Hot spent fuel rods containing uranium pellets are removed from the reactor core before their specially constructed high temperature resistant containers become dangerously corroded and start to disintegrate from being bombarded by the atomic particles. They are relocated outside the hardened reactor containment vessel to a nearby large enclosed, water-filled tank. The tanks and their domes are made of 4-foot thick reinforced concrete, with the tank having a steel liner. They are said to be earthquake safe, but not "hardened" like the containment vessel that house the reactor core.
Experts disagree as to whether in fact the containment vessel could withstand being struck by a 747 aircraft. Some say it can, while others say that it can't, but that the resulting fire would burn up and away from the core that lies below. The cooling tanks on the other hand may be vulnerable if struck by a small missile or light plane.
It is during this cool down process within these tanks outside the protected containment vessel that the chances of a catastrophic incident with disastrous consequences could occur, possibly the result of a terrorist act.
Within the tanks, the spent fuel rods are kept in about 39 feet of water that glows a rich blue from the excited uranium. Estimates vary depending upon use and type of spent fuel (military or civilian reactors) as to how long it must be kept in the pools before they are cool enough to be "dry casked," a time which can range anywhere from 5 to 30 years -- on average 5 to 10 years. If for any reason the tank is breached and loses its coolant, the rods will start to overheat melting their containers first, then the steel pool liner and then the holding tank itself. Other nearby cooler rods would also be melted into a boiling burning zirconium fire that cannot be put out. That fire would emit deadly plutonium, Cesium 137, Strontium 90 and other radioactive materials up into the atmosphere to be spread by wind for hundreds of miles, and possibly thousands!
The resulting melt down of the rods and the tank would be similar to the core melt down that took place at the Chernobyl reactor in the Soviet Union. Quite possibly it could be much larger, as there are many more fuel rods in the cooling tanks than there are normally in a reactor core when it is operating. Therefore the amount of radiation released could be significantly higher. While the amount of fuel in a commercial reactor may vary, depending upon its type, on average there are about 20 tons of fuel rods in the reactor core under normal operating conditions. For example, the two reactors located on the Chesapeake Bay have 950 tons of stored radioactive waste on hand, while the Dresden Plant near Joliet, IL, has 6,579 fuel assemblies, some 15,000 tons, stored in twin pools.
When the Chernobyl reactor exploded in 1985, it blew off the top of the building, sending up 90 million curies of radioactive debris to a height of almost two miles (some estimate the total curies released to be actually several times larger). On site radiation reached 100 roentgens an hour. This level produces hourly doses hundreds of times the maximum dose that the International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends for members of the public per year. Levels on the roof of the destroyed reactor reached an unbelievable 100,000 roentgens an hour. As of 1996, well over 260,000 sq. kilometers of land in the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus still had more than one curie per sq. kilometer of contamination from Cesium 137.
Millions of people had to be relocated to other areas of the country and provided with housing, food and medical treatment. Entire towns were abandoned along with their economic productivity. Everything was left behind. Hundreds of square miles of once productive farmland, along with all of their animals and equipment, were lost. An area the size of England, Ireland, and Wales put together, or about 160,000 sq. kilometers. A dead zone of 25 miles surrounds the reactor that was once inhabited by 135,000 people who were moved within 10 days of the accident. More than 60 settlements beyond that zone have also been relocated -- 2.6 million people still live in the heavily contaminated area that includes over 1,300 towns and villages. A total of about 3.3 million people have been exposed as a result of the accident, 700,000 of them being children. One fifth of the area's residences suffer from the effects of radiation exposure.
It is difficult to get an accurate number of those affected because of the great dislocation of the inhabitants. Conservative estimates place the number of deaths at about 32,000; other estimates place the number at almost twice that figure. Of the 400,000 workers, or "liquidators" as they were called, who took part in burying the exposed reactor core and constructing the sarcophagus with its 20- foot thick walls, 5,000 are now too ill to work. Twenty-eight firefighters and workers died within a few months of the accident from radiation exposure.
Because of the long latency period no one is quite sure how many new malignancies will develop or how far they spread in the body. The actual number becoming ill and those who die will continue to grow over time because of the latent effects of radiation exposure. The full scope of this tragedy may not be known for decades. In Russia alone some 3.3 million people were affected by this accident. Still inside the destroyed reactor are thousands of metric tons of fuel with a total radio activity of 20 million curies and a radiation level of several thousand roentgens per hour, lethal for any life form.
In April of 2002, officials at Chernobyl estimated that gaps in the concrete and steel shell that covers the damaged reactor totaled more than 10,700 square feet. Openings in the sarcophagus allow water to enter the highly radio active structure on its way to the water table and the nearby Pripyat River that ultimately feeds into the Dnieper River which supplies water to over 30 million people. Eight hundred hastily dug burial sites near the reactor hold highly radio active waste including trees that absorbed radio isotopes from the atmosphere. These dumps are thought to be the source of contamination already showing up in the sediments of the Pripyat River adjacent to Chernobyl. The estimates include 10,000 curies of Strontium 90, 12,000 Cesium 137 and 2,000 curies of plutonium.
The 15-nation European Union and the Ukraine are planning to cover the existing sarcophagus with another at a cost of some $700 million and hope to relocate the dumps, but are unsure of where to put them.
The Chernobyl disaster was so great and it's economic impact so costly, it is said to have been a major contributing factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
2. Nuclear Waste and Terrorism
Since the 9-11 incident, there has been a sense of urgency to remove these radioactive materials and in particular the stored fuel rods from their currently exposed locations and bury them under Yucca Mountain. Before 9-11, visitor centers at many of the nation's nuclear power plants were freely provided information about the plants, including aerial photographs identifying individual structures by number, like the reactors, spent fuel pool buildings and the dry-cask waste storage area. They were also available on the web. Although no longer available, the information cannot be taken back.
On July 6, 2002, the government told owners and operators of private planes to strengthen security because terrorists may try to use "general aviation aircraft to attack the United States." Of the 215,000 planes that fly daily in the U.S., over 200,000 are small planes or general aviation aircraft. The Transportation Security Administration said it had "credible indications" that terrorists were planning attacks by using small planes, but were "unaware of what targets they may go after."
In addition to the 40,000 tons of fuel rods already stored around the U.S., at the nation's nuclear power plants, each plant produces another 20 tons of spent fuel rods a year. Because of the potential disaster that exists from a terrorist strike by flying a plane into the cooling tanks, it has been suggested that "Hot Packing" the rods under Yucca Mountain might be a solution to reducing their vulnerability.
Hot Packing would involve placing the hot fuel rods directly into transportation casks as they come out of the reactor and "bypassing" the cool down period that normally lasts from 5 to 30 years. This would greatly reduce the amount of time where they are most vulnerable to an accident or attack. Hot Packing would save time but would result in the rods melting their casks, and literally boiling the volcanic rock that surrounds them under Yucca Mountain. A risky maneuver, as no one knows what else might happen.
After the rods have cooled enough, they are placed in "dry casks" in order to reduce the danger of an accident and prepare the rods for relocation. These casks are heavily reinforced concrete and steel, about 15 feet long and reportedly strong enough to withstand a crash at 81 mph into a concrete wall. They are not, however, a "zero risk proposition" and they have not been tested against a missile attack. Only 18 reactor sites have so far started dry packing casks. Fourteen additional sites will have enough cooled rods to begin dry packing in the near future. It is hoped that by 2010 up to 60 sites total will have their cooled fuel rods in dry cask containers.
In June of 2002, the state of California made plans to distribute potassium Iodide tablets to nearly ½ million people living within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant. They are currently talking about expanding it to a 50-mile radius to protect many more inhabitants, and possibly even further in the near future. This decision comes six months after the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commissions) offered the pills to 34 states with nuclear reactors enough potassium iodide to give each person within 10 miles of a reactor two days worth of medication. Experts, however, suggest a 14-day course of treatment. The NRC believes that to be unnecessary as they feel people will evacuate any danger zone quickly. But no plans have been made to distribute the pills to the military, police or fire departments.
The U.S. Postal Service has gone ahead on its own and purchased 1.6 million doses to protect its employees against thyroid cancer in the event of a nuclear explosion or meltdown. Millions of people who live in 10 states including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, have already received the pills.
These pills will not protect a person from all forms of radiation poisoning such as that received from plutonium, cesium, strontium, or any of the other forms of radiation; it will only protect the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine and only if it is taken shortly after exposure. It works by flooding the thyroid with harmless iodine, thereby preventing the radioactive iodine from being absorbed. The government is passing out these pills to calm the public's fears since 9-11, as the public demands protection.
The only real protection would be evacuation of those downwind areas, something that is probably impossible, as the result would be gridlock.
Back in 1982, a study was done on the possible effects of a "reactor failure." They estimated that it could kill approximately 27,000 people in the first year, and another 18,000 deaths would occur over the long term, and it would result in $86 billion in property damage.
In late 2002, ABS, which specializes in qualifying losses from natural and man-made hazards, and ANATECH Corp., a firm that evaluates structural failures, created computer models of the 4-foot thick concrete reactor containment domes. They have concluded that a 767-400 Jetliner, fully loaded with 28,980 gallons of fuel, flown directly into the center of a reactor at 350 mph, would not penetrate the structure.
The NRC did not mention if any tests were conducted upon the storage pools for spent fuel rods. Separate computer modeled crash tests on a reactor's vulnerability are classified and being conducted by the Sandia National Laboratories.
Robert Alvarez, a former advisor for the Energy Dept., recently told a senate committee of a 1997 analysis that had been done. He said a fire at a spent fuel pool could contaminate up to 188 sq. miles of land. The NRC acknowledges that its efforts at protecting the pools have been focused upon earthquake and natural disasters and not on a possible terrorist attack. The analysis showed that an aircraft crashing into a spent fuel structure would do significant damage to the building but that " the pool itself would not leak significantly."
Jack Skolds, an industry spokesman and chief nuclear officer at Exelon said, "Can I categorically say every spent fuel pool would withstand the impact of a 767 aircraft? No, I can't tell you that. I can tell you they are very safe indeed."
Exelon owns 17 nuclear reactors located in Illinois and Pennsylvania. (Since 9-11, plainclothes employees at Exelon reactors have started to carry semi-automatic rifles.)
There are 80 nuclear power plants operating east of the Mississippi; nine are located in New York and Pennsylvania. If for any reason one of these 9 reactor sites were to experience a loss of water in their holding tanks for the hot spent fuel rods, it could send a radioactive cloud sweeping over New York City and other populated areas downwind, leaving New York state, including Manhattan Island, uninhabitable. The resulting economic devastation running into the trillions of dollars could very possibly lead to the collapse of the US economy. The only way to reduce this threat of exposure is to reduce the on-site storage of radioactive waste.
Shipping the 77,00 tons of radioactive material from 131 sites, located in 39 states, across 45 states to Yucca Mountain is how the Department of Energy plans to reduce that risk. This includes 44,000 tons of spent fuel rods from 31 states and 33,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste, most from bomb and warhead-making facilities located in 8 other states. This material would be shipped by truck and rail across 45 states and through some densely populated areas, like Chicago and St. Louis. Much of it would be shipped in steel casks, while the more highly radioactive material would be shipped in lead lined casks. Each rail cask would weigh approximately 145 tons and hold an amount of Cesium 137 that would be the equivalent of 260 times that released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The Nuclear Energy Institute has reported that these waste canister cylinders have 15-inch thick, triple layered walls of steel and lead. They have undergone tests to withstand punctures, 120 mph collisions and exposure to a 21,475-degree fire for ½ hour.
It is estimated that 99,700 trips by truck will be required from 72 of the nuclear power plants alone, with an additional 16,240 coming from the Hanford facility, and another 2,460 from Idaho National Engineering. Thousands of more trips would be required for the 57 additional sites. Some 50 million people live within a ½ mile of these projected routes. Critics have pointed out that the trucks or trains could become targets of terrorists or that an accident could occur, leaving one of the casks leaking its cargo into the air, rivers, or lakes. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham says there is little risk to the public, and that the U.S. has already transported 2,700 loads of spent nuclear waste over 1.6 million miles since the 1960's, "without one accident resulting from the harmful release of radiation." This information is disputed by representatives of the state of Nevada who contend that there have been 11 accidents where detectable amounts of radioactive materials were released.
Every year some 60 loads of high-level radioactive material are shipped by the Navy department, mostly spent reactor fuel from submarines and atomic power plants.
Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn said that he would continue to fight the Yucca Mountain dumpsite saying that the state has already filed six laws suits against the project. The first suit attacks the Environmental Protection Agency's decision that Yucca Mountain be designed for a safety span of 10,000 years vs. 1 million years as advised by the National Academy of Sciences. The lawsuit also challenges EPA standards regulating the amount of radiation that would be allowed to leak from Yucca Mountain.
The second lawsuit challenges the government decision to rely on "engineered solutions" to keep radiation within Yucca Mountain. Despite the fact that in1982 Congress mandated that a "geologically safe site" be selected, government scientists have concluded Yucca Mountain is not solid enough to contain radiation. In addition, opponents say the mountain has many water-seeping fractures.
In a story published on Nov. 28, 2002, in the Las Vegas Review Journal, Bill Belke states that he was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's senior on-site representative at the project for seven years. During that time he watched closely as Department of Energy contract workers tried to troubleshoot two decades of data that scientists had gathered. Some of the information involved earthquake hazards, volcanic activity and groundwater paths. "Computer models were created with the test of time." Belke said, "I know with the problems I've seen, there's been a lot of problems with the data, and the data, if its going to a License, has got to be a high pedigree quality to support their licensing activities. They've got to make a case that this data is accurate and qualified. There are significant problems."
There are reports that two men who worked on the site as quality assurance specialists were fired or transferred after voicing concerns about the site. Nevada senators Democrat Harry Reid and Republican John Ensign have alleged "fraud and abuse " in the firing of the two workers and are calling for congressional investigation. Reid was also sent an anonymous letter on Nov. 25, 2002 that stated; "Currently as much as 50 percent of the data used to support the site recommendation of the Yucca Mountain Project is lost - NRC is aware of this." The data for the core samples, geology, volcanic activity and ground water paths may not be complete or accurate and may not have been documented properly. Equipment used to gather some of this information would be calibrated differently today.
Opponents of the project contend that it is the nuclear industry that has been pushing the project forward. Without a permanent repository for the spent fuel currently stored on site around the country, the industry can't possibly move forward with plans for further construction. Since 1994 the nuclear power industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spent approximately $72 million lobbying in favor of a repository at Yucca Mountain.
At Clark County, Nevada, a study released in January 2002, estimated that a roadway accident including nuclear material on its way to Yucca Mountain could force 90,000 residents to move and eliminate 54,000 jobs and cost the economy $1.4 Billion. Joe Davis of the Energy Department says, "We have an incredible track record, the amount of shipping would increase but we think we could safely and securely continue to move it." But in mid July 2002, as the vote in the U.S. Senate neared, some Senators began to question the transportation plans and voice their concerns.
Sen. Barbara Boxer D- Calif. says her "worst nightmare" is terrorists blowing up a truckload of lethal nuclear waste and contaminating a heavily populated stretch of Interstate 15 between L.A. and Nevada.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-ILL, thinks it is very dangerous to be moving thousands of tons of nuclear waste through Chicago's dense hub of railways and highways, or "God Forbid", on barges crossing the Great Lakes or traveling on the Mississippi River.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski is fearful of a repeat of last years Baltimore rail tunnel accident and fire, but this time possibly involving spent fuel from Maryland's Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. "We cannot risk this happening with nuclear cargo", she said. "This nuclear waste is going to go by our schools; it's going to go by our hospitals. It is going to go by our children. It's going to go by our homes."
Former Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., said she is opposed to the transportation plan after learning that there would be more than 19,000 truck and 4,000 rail shipments of nuclear waste going through her state saying, "I don't want Missouri to become the nation's waste super highway."
Yucca Mountain is scheduled to begin receiving shipments in 2010, and are to be continued for at least another 38 years. So far an estimated $6.8 billion has been spent on this 24-year-old project, with another estimated $51 billion needed to complete it. These are only estimates for the project as currently configured, and may possibly grow larger as the volume of radioactive waste continues to increase. Add to this the costs of constructing the storage casks, shipping, and that of making possibly 200,000 trips in caravans with heavily armed personnel. Estimates for those costs have not been released by the Department of Energy so far, but are sure to be in the billions of dollars. The cost of Nuclear Power, originally thought to be so cheap that we wouldn't need electric meters and could leave the lights on all the time, as well as the expense associated with radioactive waste that grows ever larger from the cold war bomb and war head assembly plants and its related facilities, continue to spiral upward, with no end in sight.
In reactors designed to produce plutonium for weapons, the spent fuel rods are removed from the reactor core and undergo a series of processing procedures to recover the tiny bits of plutonium (approximately 3 grams per fuel rod). This is accomplished by using a variety of chemicals and acids such as nitric acid to melt the rods and uranium pellets inside. Plutonium being heavier drops to the bottom of this solution and is then able to be recovered. After further processing, it is eventually molded then machined into spherical pits. This plutonium pit, usually about the size of a softball, then becomes the heart of a thermo nuclear "weapons." It's during this separating process to recover the plutonium that large quantities of liquid, long lived, radioactive waste are produced.
Over 55 million gallons are stored at the Hanford reservation in Washington State. This mix of radioactive waste includes many dangerous chemicals, acids and nitrates that if not treated properly, can be very explosive. The waste solution is then stored in underground tanks that vary in size, holding anywhere from 55,000 to 1.4 million gallons.
Heat generated by the decaying isotopes requires that the tanks containing the potentially explosive solutions be surrounded by a circulation system of water-filled cooling pipes. Because of the extremely corrosive nature of their contents and the deteriorating effects that the radiation has upon them, some tanks develop leaks after a short period of time, requiring their contents to be transferred to others. Sixty five tanks have leaked over 1 million gallons into the ground at Hanford. In addition to the required cooling, some tanks need to be stirred on a regular schedule (at a cost of $1.4 million per stirring) to keep them from developing dangerous internal "hot" and/or "dry" spots. If for any reason there is a cooling system failure and the contents dry out, the nitrates and other chemicals can spontaneously explode.
Which is just what happened in 1957 at the Miaks Works, a Plutonium Production facility, said to be a pipe-for-pipe copy of the Hanford complex in the United States. It was in the Urals at Chelyabinsk in the former Soviet Union that a storage tank's water cooling system failed, allowing its contents to dry out. The nitrates inside exploded like a bomb, blowing off the top and spewing 20 million curies of Strontium 90, Cesium 137, and other radioactivity material almost a mile into the air. It drifted downwind, contaminating 15,000 square miles, super saturating an area 300 miles long and 1 to 2 miles wide. The government was slow to act but eventually 30 villages and their surrounding farms of over 10,000 people were evacuated, leaving everything behind.
A scientist was sent by the Soviet Government to investigate the scope of the disaster and it's effects upon farm animals and the land. Years later in 1973, his assistant wrote an article describing the extent of the accident for a British magazine. It was dismissed as "scientific fantasy" by Sir John Hill, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority in Great Britain at the time, and "nonsense" by the nuclear scientific community.
The C.I.A. also knew about the accident, but in what could have been a propaganda coup for the U.S., during those cold war years, chose not to publicly disclose it. Both Britain and the U.S. were in the midst of promoting and expanding their own nuclear power and weapons programs at the time.
As devastating as Chernobyl was, the accident at Chelyabinsk is said by experts to be even-worse because of the highly concentrated and long-lived nature of the radioactivity material involved. We may never know the extent of human suffering for those living downwind or why the government delayed so long before ordering the evacuations. Most every aspect of nuclear weapons programs and nuclear power seem to be synonymous with secrecy and deception. Today, 45 years after the accident at Chelyabinsk, the public in the U.S. knows very little about this event.
While viewing one of the tank farms at Hanford, my guide told me about an event that took place some time ago. It seems faint noises could be heard coming one of the tanks that over time gradually grew louder until it was violently shaking with loud bangs emanating from inside. Working day and night they were able to remove the top and stir the contents, avoiding a possible explosive situation similar to the one that occurred in Chelyabinsk. For those Nuclear engineers working at Hanford that do know the facts, it must be a sobering moment whenever they think about those people living downwind and in nearby cities like Spokane, Washington. Every country with a nuclear weapons program has these same waste storage problems and the same potential for disaster.
Some sites like the Hanford facility are so contaminated and the amount of dangerous radioactive waste so massive that they could never be made safe regardless of how many billions or trillions of dollars are spent. Numerous places around the U.S. will have to be declared national sacrifice areas. They will need to be fenced off and guarded until radioactive materials decay on their own. Some radioactive isotopes have a ½ life of over a million years.
While the discussion continues on how best to consolidate the waste and to reduce the threat of accident or terrorists attacks at these 131 sites, each nuclear power plant will continue to produce 20 tons of spent fuel rods every year, requiring more storage space than currently proposed at Yucca Mountain. In addition to the radioactive waste, in June of 2002, the Bush Administration instructed that a blue print be drawn up for the quickest way to resume underground testing of nuclear weapons devices in the event that it decides to resume testing.
In addition to that request, is one tucked inside the $393 billion Defense Dept. bill just approved by congress. It authorizes the National Security Administration to spend $15 million to study modifying nuclear weapons so they could be used to destroy underground factories and laboratories. Critics argue that it is the Bush Administration's first step toward producing weapons that would require a resumption of nuclear testing. The Department of Energy, at the direction of the Bush Administration, has been pressing ahead with its plans for a new plutonium pit production facility.
In addition, final approval was given last year (2002) for Tritium production to take place within commercial nuclear reactors. What this means is that the Administration is moving forward with its plans for a new round of testing, development and eventual production of a whole new generation of nuclear weapons. The previous administration had for many years been concentrating on the dismantling and destruction of existing nuclear weapons under the SALT I and II treaties (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) and the ABMT (Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty) of 1972 that it had been signed with the Russians. The Bush Administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty in early 2002 so it could proceed to develop and deploy a missile defense system.
While other nations may break treaties, the Bush Administration said it has merely "withdrawn from an obsolete and out dated treaty", thereby maintaining the integrity of the United States.
The U.S. can now proceed to test and develop the latest high tech delivery and weapons systems, including more advanced versions of the six year old B-61, Mod 11 "bunker busting" tactical nuclear bomb, anxiously awaited by some in the military. The B-61 is considered ineffective because it can only burrow 20 feet into the ground before detonating. The reported yield of the B-61 devices in the U.S. inventory varies from less than one kiloton of TNT to more than 350 (The Hiroshima bomb was 20 kilotons).
Rep. Edward J. Markey D-Mass said, "A new bunker-busting nuclear earth penetrator sends exactly the wrong signal to the world. At a time when we are trying to discourage other countries such as North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, it looks hypocritical for us to be preparing to introduce a whole new generation of nuclear weapons into the arsenal." A physicist with the Federation of American Scientists, Michael A. Levi said, "these are brute force bombs", although a bunker-buster might release less fallout than other nuclear weapons, it would still spread enough radiation to kill thousands of people.
The resumption of testing would of course create thousands of tons more radioactive waste to be dealt with, high-level waste with Plutonium 239, Cesium 137, Strontium 90, etc.
3. Nuclear Waste: The Growing Predicament
Can the DOE avoid shipping this material to Yucca Mountain? If so, 100,000 trips by truck across the nation could be avoided with all the associated risks!
Some have said leave the material at the current 131 sites, but make them safer from terrorist attacks from the air by creating no fly zones above them and also station Marines with stinger hand-held missiles ready to fire at any threatening aircraft. At the same time, create a plan by which the holding tanks and lids can be hardened; or replace the tanks with others buried underground.
In addition to the hazard that the spent fuel rods present, there are numerous aging reactors and plutonium production facilities scattered around the U.S. The concrete walls of these structures contain hundreds of millions of curies. At the Hanford facility in Washington State, there are some 160 tanks which vary in size from 55,000 to a million and a half gallons "containing" the most deadly radioactive substances on earth, buried in the ground, without hardened domes. There are also cribs, where hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste have been buried; they include everything from trucks, tools and bulldozers to whole nuclear reactors. And finally there are locations where billions of gallons of radioactive liquid were just poured on the soil. The cribs and contaminated soil could produce a sizable toxic fire fed by the plane's fuel and construction material. But if a plane were to penetrate one of the high-level radioactive waste tanks, it could be much worse than any other scenario previously mentioned.
So, we have finally reached the point at which no matter what we do with the waste, the potential for disaster is very great. Ever since the nuclear genie was let out of the bottle back in 1944, we have tried to control its energy and radioactive waste, while being assured that with each new bomb or missile we would become safer and more secure. We were told about the benefits of safe, clean and cheap nuclear power and not to worry about its radioactive waste, for technology would soon solve that problem. As the years passed and the missile numbers increased, we found ourselves less safe and less secure and more threatened with each new missile, while the radioactive waste continued to grow. And as nuclear power plants expanded in numbers, the cost of construction soared out of sight sending Westinghouse and General Electric to bank their profits and the consumers to write their checks, while the waste continued to pile up. Soon we will have a solution we were told.
At the Hanford plutonium production facility in Washington, their technological solution was to bore holes in the earth and pour billions of gallons of radioactive waste down into them to get "rid" of it. Today it leeches into the near-by Columbia River. Cold War facilities with their radioactive materials contaminated the ground water, rivers, air and land. When some of the aging nuclear power plants were decommissioned, the costs of dismantling were higher than the original cost of construction. They were buried along with much of the equipment used in the deconstruction, as that too had also become irradiated. Buried along with aging nuclear submarine reactors, and their center sections, missile components, tools, equipment, clothing, building materials and entire buildings. In some cases even the rail cars that transported these materials would be driven into mole-like earth mounds. They had become too hot and deadly to be ever used again. Still we were assured that someday an answer would be found for getting rid of all this radioactive waste.
So here we are today some 60 years later, and we are told about the latest high tech solution for dealing with some of this old waste. The plan is to bury it, just like the Romans and the Pharos did with their garbage. Dig a hole under Yucca Mountain and bury it, and hope it stays buried and won't get into the water or air for at least 10,000 years, and quite possibly much, much longer. The alternative is to try and keep it contained at those 131 sites. Some of the waste has already been buried, more then they could ever move, at locations like Hanford where it continues to spread underground in great plumes. Of course add to this mix the latest wild card of preventing a terrorist attack on any of these sites.
It seems we have finally run out of time and choices. The amount of radioactive waste has become so large, it can no longer be ignored. No more excuses, no more myths about cheap, clean, safe nuclear power, no more Cold War rhetoric about those Godless Russians coming to get us. Not one Russian nuclear bomb or missile ever landed on our country and yet we have all become contaminated. Every citizen in the world has elevated levels of radiation in their bodies as a direct result of atomic testing and nuclear power. Some of us much more than others. Out of fear, ignorance and greed, we have done it to ourselves, setting off hundreds of nuclear explosions on our own country. We have spread radioactive waste across the land with slogans of "keeping the world free for democracy" or "cheap, clean safe nuclear power" and the like.
Whatever we choose to do in the end may not matter. We have painted ourselves into a corner. Whichever way we move to deal with our waste may be the wrong way. There may not be a right way any longer; maybe there never was. One thing is for sure, we have created it and it can't be put back into the bottle. The Nuclear Genie is out!
The irony is that if you listen closely you can still hear these voices out of the past calling for a resumption of nuclear weapons testing and for more clean, safe nuclear power plants. George W .Bush and his allies in Congress as part of his Energy Bill would create a Nuclear Power 2010 program. It would use taxpayer money to subsidize permitting and licensing of new reactors. Another part of the bill would be the Price Anderson Act which would exempt "operators" of Nuclear Power Plants from full liability if a serious accident should take place.
On January 2003, President Bush purposed spending billions of dollars on fuel cell research during state of the union speech. What wasn't said was that hundreds of millions of dollars will go to the petrochemical and nuclear industry as the primary source for producing hydrogen. Only a tiny fraction of that will go towards non-polluting sources of hydrogen, like solar and wind.
Recently, during a closed meeting in July 2002, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly of Manhattan responded to a question about evacuating the city in the event of a radiological, chemical or biological attack. He said, "This is a city of 8 million people. It can't be done."
There would be gridlock as in all of the other large cities.
Meanwhile President, Congress and other, local leaders, are already prepared with respiratory protection, emergency water, food, medical supplies, and plans of their own to be evacuated by air, flown to safer parts of the country or world. The public would be left to fend for itself. The Bush Administration in an effort to project the image that everything is under control and that the public is safe and secure has avoided publishing information that might be useful in saving lives in the event of such an attack.
The Administration is currently in the process of completing a "super-critical list" of potential terrorist targets. It will include targets that would cause the greatest amount of damage to the United States in terms of lives, money, national defense and public confidence. Among these are food and water supplies, telecommunication systems, energy facilities and transportation networks. Tom Ridge said that when the final report is finished, probably by the end of 2002, that the public would not be provided the most sensitive findings. "We will let you know how we reviewed it, how we made the assessments, maybe some kind of recommendations, but we certainly don't want to be telegraphing our defenses to the enemy."
The FEMA-produced information does not mention whether, why, or when to evacuate and does not advise keeping plastic sheeting and duct tape available to create a "safe room." Such a room could reduce a person's exposure by up to 10 times.
No government agency recommends buying respirators. Even the inexpensive simple 3M-N95 that sell for about $1.50 would stop 95% of particles over 3 microns. These masks and others that filter out particles over .5 microns are available at paint departments in Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Sears, etc. and would help reduce exposure to chemical, biological and even anthrax contamination. They could also be effective in preventing the inhalation of deadly Alpha particles.
The government is not publishing any information on how to protect yourself from the effects of radiation that might be the result of a "dirty bomb", or any previously mentioned possible terrorist event. Doctors for Disaster Preparedness recommend, "You need to have mass between yourself and the source of radiation."
A small handheld radiation monitor about the size of a Sony Walkman is available for $279.00. A kit form can be purchased for $170.00 that you can put together yourself. Both come with a simple easy to understand instruction manual. The Monitor 4 will detect the four main types of radiation: alpha, beta gamma and x- ray. It is very accurate and calibrated to detect cesium 137, cobalt 60, Strontium 90 and many forms of Radium, Plutonium, Uranium, Thorium and many other Isotopes and Sources of ionizing radiation.
John Sorensen, Director of Emergency Management Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (a nuclear research and weapons facility), volunteered to prepare a simple easy to read pamphlet for the public that might help save lives, but was told by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross that "we're not in the business of terrifying the public," something that has not been born out by the public's reactions to past catastrophes. Instead, a decision has been made at the highest levels of our government not to provide the public with information on how to protect itself during such an event, while at the same time doing all that can be done to protect themselves. These are political decisions made in order to maintain their own positions of power and control at the risk of sacrificing the health and safety of its own citizens.
In 1994, using a tunnel boring machine, DOE began constructing a system of tunnels that will allow scientists to conduct seismological, geological and hydrological studies—known as the Exploratory Studies Facility. The five-mile tunnel was completed in 1997. Since then, scientists have expanded tests in the tunnel and its numerous niches and alcoves to study the reaction of rock and the movement of water through the rocks to the heat released by used nuclear fuel in a repository. The data from these tests will help scientists design the repository and assess its performance.
Cross-drift tunnel constructed to expand internal Yucca Mountain studies
In 1998, DOE excavated a new tunnel, or cross-drift, more than a mile inside the existing tunnel. The cross-drift cuts 1.7 miles through all the rock layers of the potential repository section, allowing scientists and engineers to examine and test the rocks that make up the potential repository.
Full array of scientific apparatus deployed, data collected and analyzed
Since completing a 1.7-mile cross-drift tunnel spanning the entire planned width of the proposed repository in 1998, DOE has deployed a comprehensive array of scientific apparatus sufficient to complete its characterization of the site and prepare for a possible site recommendation decision at the end of 2001. DOE's scientific instruments have extracted a wealth of additional data from hundreds of tunnel alcoves, tunnel niches, and boreholes in the repository rock as well as from a number of surface locations. The enhanced knowledge of the repository gained over these past 3 years has led to a significant refinement of DOE's performance assessment of Yucca Mountain since the 1998 viability assessment. This latest information has strengthened scientific confidence in the repository's ability to protect public health and safety, while uncovering no reason why used nuclear fuel and defense high-level radioactive waste should not be permanently disposed of in Yucca Mountain.
A lung disease screening program has begun for current and former workers who may have inhaled airborne silica at a federal nuclear waste depository in the Nevada desert.
Two hundred letters have been mailed, and more will be sent soon to an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 current and former Yucca Mountain site workers who are eligible to take part in the free silicosis screening program, said program manager Gene Runkle.
Two current workers are being treated for silicosis, Runkle said, although he said it was not clear if they contracted the disease working at Yucca Mountain.
Project managers did not know where most former workers were. Most were involved in tunneling and underground operations or in setting up exploratory experiments underground beginning in 1992.
Any worker who spends or spent 20 days a year working in the tunnels is eligible, Runkle said.
The Energy Department was providing names of former workers to the University of Cincinnati, which was handling silicosis screening and research. The university was also working with The Center to Protect Workers' Rights to contact trade unions and find former Yucca Mountain workers.
Most worked from 1992 to 1998, when tunnels were bored at the site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Workers were issued dust masks as protective equipment, but Runkle said that from 1992 to 1996 the masks were not used consistently.
Silica exists naturally in desert soils and in the rocks at Yucca Mountain. It can become airborne during tunneling, and inhaled silica can collect in the respiratory system. With long-term exposure, it can cause silicosis, a chronic and progressive lung disease with symptoms including coughing and shortness of breath, the Energy Department said.
The metal containers designed to carry spent nuclear fuel from the Calvert Cliffs plant and other reactors to a proposed storage site in Nevada would have failed if the transport train had been engulfed in the estimated 1,500- degree heat of the Baltimore rail tunnel fire last summer, according to a consultant's report prepared for the state of Nevada.
More than 300,000 people would have been exposed to radiation leaking from the containers, built to withstand 1,475 degrees for 30 minutes, said the report compiled by Radioactive Waste Management Associates, which was hired by Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects.
The Baltimore blaze lasted more than three days, from July 18 to 22. Its duration and intense heat would have breached the two types of rail casks used to haul spent fuel - one made of steel with lead lining and the other of steel - under the conditions of the accident, the report concludes. The fire would not have triggered a nuclear blast, but the city would have been exposed to a catastrophic release of radiation.
Each rail cask weighs about 145 tons fully loaded and contains 260 times the amount of radioactive cesium released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb, said Matthew Lamb, a co-author of the report.
"While these containers are strong, ... they are not designed to withstand everything that could happen on a transportation route," he said. "People who live along these routes should know what the possible consequences are. I don't want to be a fearmonger, the probability of these accidents is small, but it is not zero."
The Nevada agency is monitoring a federal plan to ship radioactive waste to Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Last month, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham selected Yucca Mountain as the depository for about 77,000 tons of spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste that is being stored in 39 states, including Maryland. President Bush is expected to approve the recommendation this week, according to congressional sources.
Some of those shipments would pass through Baltimore's Howard Street Tunnel, part of one of the major East Coast rail routes.
Eileen Supko, a nuclear engineer who often serves as a spokeswoman for the nuclear power industry, dismissed the Nevada report as "fearmongering."
"Truthfully, the purpose of that report from the state of Nevada and its contractors was to stir things up and to scare people," she said. "A lot of the rhetoric from the anti-nuclear groups is to generate fear. If you look at the history of spent nuclear shipments, not just in the United States but internationally, there has never been a release of radioactive materials from the containers."
Nevada officials, including Sen. Harry Reid, a ranking Democrat, are trying to derail the proposal by focusing on the dangers of transporting radioactive waste. The Yucca Mountain proposal is unpopular in Nevada, where many residents are angry about the nuclear waste it would send streaming into the state.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said he was unfamiliar with the report and could not comment on its findings. But he said it might be prudent to direct high-level radioactive waste away from "vulnerable" and "heavily populated" areas.
If the plan moves forward, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of shipments of radioactive waste would be sent to Yucca Mountain annually for 24 to 38 years from 131 commercial, research and military reactors. Baltimore is one of 109 cities with populations of more than 100,000 along the likely shipping routes.
The storage problem
About 20 percent of the nation's electricity is generated by 103 commercial nuclear plants, and the industry's survival depends on the Yucca Mountain disposal site. No nuclear plants have been built since the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, and none are likely to be built without a permanent solution to the storage problem.
Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's main trade organization, said there are now 18 reactor sites with dry cask storage and 14 more have such plans. By 2010, 60 commercial nuclear plants will need dry cask storage.
Nuclear fuel consists of uranium pellets encased in metal rods. Used or "spent" fuel is removed from the reactor to water-filled pools, where it cools for about 10 years. It is then moved to "dry" storage, where it has been piling up at reactor sites because there is no place to dispose of it.
Spent fuel has been accumulating at Calvert Cliffs since its first reactor went online in 1975. There is enough storage space there to last the life span of the plant's two reactors, which are licensed until 2034 and 2036, respectively, said Steven W. Unglesbee, a spokesman for the plant.
Calvert Cliffs is owned and operated by Constellation Energy Group, the parent company of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., and produces about 40 percent of the energy generated by the utility.
Some utilities are suing the Energy Department because it agreed to start hauling the waste to Yucca Mountain about four years ago and the project has fallen behind schedule. About $7 billion has been spent on the site, which could open in 2010 at the earliest. The completed project is expected to cost about $58 billion.
Assessing the risk
Yucca Mountain's opponents say the number of shipments and the uncertainties inherent in transporting hazardous waste by truck and train increase the probability of a catastrophic accident.
A spent fuel accident in the tunnel would have been disastrous for Baltimore. Whole city neighborhoods would have had to have been razed to reduce radiation to acceptable levels, Lamb said.
"It's either that," he said, "or the risk of a serious cancer hazard for the people who live close to where the accident took place and downwind."
Singer said nuclear waste has been shipped safely by truck and rail for more than 35 years. During that period, more than 3,000 shipments of spent fuel have traveled about 1.7 million miles in this country.
Supko said the shipping containers must be able to survive hypothetical accidents, represented by a 30-foot drop to a flat, unyielding surface, followed by puncture test, heat and immersion in water. She said computer simulations and actual tests on containers show that they will survive any likely accident.
Dropping a huge rail container onto a flat, unyielding surface is the equivalent of a high-speed accident because the container absorbs all of the energy, she said. Supko said the thermal test, which subjects containers to an engulfing fire of 1,475 degrees for 30 minutes, simulates conditions that would exceed a real-world accident, such as the tunnel fire.
In a transportation accident involving fire, the container would be sitting on a flatbed truck or rail car, and that would result in a heat transfer from the container to the other surface, she said.
A fire in which only the container is engulfed in flames is highly unlikely and simulates higher temperatures in a real-world situation, she added.
Federal regulations do not prohibit spent fuel from being shipped with other freight, so it could be involved in a rail accident such as the tunnel fire, the report said. But Supko disagreed.
She said it is highly unlikely that a railroad would allow spent fuel to be shipped with combustible chemicals or other hazardous cargo. It is much more likely that a "dedicated train," a train that hauls only nuclear waste, would be used to ship spent fuel to Yucca Mountain, she said.
When Abraham picked Yucca Mountain, he pointed to national security as a reason for having a national nuclear waste repository.
"We should consolidate the nuclear wastes to enhance protection against terrorist attacks," he said in a letter to Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn.
But critics say that implementing the plan would endanger national security.
"If Yucca Mountain moves forward, it merely increases the number of terrorist targets," said Robert R. Loux, the executive director of Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects. "We'll have 3,000 shipments moving by truck and train, 103 reactor sites and one big target - Yucca Mountain."
Singer contends that tight security for shipments and the nuclear industry's strong safety record negate critics' arguments.
"Is it vulnerable to a terrorist attack? Anything is possible," he said. "But due to the rigorous nature of the transportation canisters and the security measures that are taken, any shipment of them - by train or by truck - it would be very, very difficult, if not impossible [target] for a terrorist."
The following correction was published in the Wednesday, May 1, 2001 Deseret News: A statement in a story Sunday on the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain was mistakenly attributed to Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah. The statement was actually provided to the Deseret News by a spokeswoman for Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. Cannon wrote, "Until more is known about transportation, long-term safety and a final plan for Yucca Mountain, I think we as Utahns should stand in opposition to nuclear waste carried to or through Utah." Hansen spokeswoman Marnie Funk said Hansen does not share Cannon's position on Yucca Mountain.
Isolated in the barren Nevada desert northwest of Las Vegas, Yucca Mountain, for most Utahns, is far out of sight and further out of mind.
Barren hills surround Yucca Mountain. Eighty to 90 percent of the nuclear waste bound for Yucca would pass through the Wasatch Front.
But Nevada officials are issuing a clarion warning: If Yucca Mountain is approved by Congress as the ultimate repository for the nation's nuclear waste, Utah stands directly in harm's way, perhaps more than any other state.
"Make no mistake about it, high-level nuclear waste will be traveling by truck and by rail through the heart of Salt Lake City," said U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Tens of thousands of heavy trucks laden with the deadliest waste known to man, creeping one by one down I-15 at 35 mph through the heart of the Salt Lake Valley on their way to southern Nevada.
Six trucks a day, each with police escorts, every day for 38 years.
In fact, 80 to 90 percent of the nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain will pass through the Wasatch Front. Some 80,000 truck shipments and 16,000 rail shipments, Reid said.
"The question is not if there will be an accident, but when and where," he said. "Salt Lake City is the crossroads of the West. . . . I would be willing to bet there will be an accident there."
Reid and Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn are leading a fight in Congress to block Yucca Mountain. But a House committee overwhelmingly approved the Yucca Mountain plan last week, and a full House vote on the repository will likely happen later this week or early next week. The selection is expected to pass.
The Senate will take up the issue later in the spring, even as Nevada mounts a last-ditch effort to block the repository.
But Nevada officials are not counting on Republican members of Utah's congressional delegation to support their opposition, despite what Reid says are enormous risks to Utah.
Construction engineer Nelson O'Connor takes a visitor on a tour of a 5-mile tunnel at Yucca Mountain.
"Why the Utah congressional delegation is not on our side is mind-boggling," Reid said. "We have always tried to help Utah (in its own fight against nuclear waste in Tooele County), and why they are not helping us is beyond my ability to understand."
But they should be, Reid warns, noting that Nevada's fight to keep nuclear waste out is also Utah's fight.
A revised environmental impact statement for Yucca Mountain — tagged by President Bush for 77,000 tons of the nation's spent nuclear fuel rods — made some subtle changes in transportation routes that will direct about 75 percent of all waste shipments west on I-80, down Parleys Canyon to I-15 and then south down the Wasatch Front.
Most of the remaining nuclear waste will go to Yucca Mountain via rail — through Utah.
There has been scarcely a peep of opposition to the plan from Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who is locked in his own battle to keep nuclear waste from a "temporary" storage site in Tooele County.
"I believe there is a need for a permanent solution, and I know the permanent solution is not Utah's West Desert," Leavitt said. "My primary objective is that waste not come to Utah's West Desert."
Leavitt would not say whether he supports or opposes Yucca Mountain as a permanent solution to the nation's nuclear-waste problem, only that "we have some interests in common with Nevada, and there are other interests where we may diverge."
He says he has talked with Guinn about Yucca Mountain. The two governors agree on some points, and they have agreed to disagree on others. "He understands my position," Leavitt said, refusing to offer specifics.
But Nevada officials and their activist allies in Utah who are involved in the Yucca Mountain battle are piqued at the Utah governor, especially considering his many statements before the Western Governors Association that "the West will not be the dumping ground for the nation."
"I guess he meant that Nevada wasn't part of the West," said Utah anti-nuclear activist Steve Erickson, director of the Citizens Education Project.
Leavitt's perceived lack of commitment has not gone unnoticed in Nevada, where newspaper editorials have sharply criticized the Utah governor for using his political muscle to kill a resolution in the state's Legislature that would have expressed solidarity with Nevada in its fight against nuclear waste.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., addresses the demonstrators at a protest rally. Reid says the Utah delegation's lack of support for Nevada's fight against the repository is "mind-boggling."
"I did not feel it was appropriate at this point to formalize a position on Yucca Mountain," Leavitt said. "It was not the time to debate it."
But with Congress poised to take final action on Yucca Mountain in the next couple of months, when is the right time for Utah to weigh in?
"Not now," Leavitt said. "It is a complex mix of technical, legal and political factors, and we are doing the best we can to position Utah to protect ourselves. That is our first priority."
While Leavitt is choosing his words carefully, Republicans in Utah's congressional delegation have historically supported Bush and the Yucca Mountain proposal.
Political insiders say Republicans are standing in solidarity with their Republican president, making the issue purely partisan. And they point to $30 million in campaign contributions by the nuclear-power industry over the past 30 months to sway congressional opinion on both sides of the political aisle.
Sen. Bob Bennett said Friday he is undecided but leaning toward supporting the Yucca proposal. Rep. Chris Cannon did not return calls.
Heather Barney, spokeswoman for Sen. Orrin Hatch, said Utah's senior senator remains committed to Yucca Mountain "but adamantly opposed to temporary storage in Skull Valley." That despite the fact Hatch has accepted campaign contributions from nuclear-power utilities involved with the Skull Valley project.
Hatch believes the billions spent studying Yucca Mountain demonstrate the site is an appropriate repository, and he believes the waste can be transported safely.
"Sen. Hatch and Sen. Bennett are both reasonable men, and it is reasonable to support Nevada's opposition to Yucca Mountain," Reid said. "There is still room for them to change their minds."
One Republican who has shifted his position is Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, who isn't convinced yet that Yucca Mountain is the ultimate solution, and he is more than a little concerned about the transportation risks that put Utah in harm's way.
"Until more is known about transportation, long-term safety and a final plan for Yucca Mountain, I think we as Utahns should stand in opposition to nuclear waste carried to or through Utah," Hansen said.
Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's only Democrat in Congress, says the state's congressional delegation should be shouting with one voice that Utah and Nevada should not and will not be a dumping ground for the nation's most toxic wastes.
"There's no question Utahns ought to be concerned about the transportation of that waste, and so should the 100 million other Americans living along the routes," he said. Not only is there a risk of catastrophic accident with no experience on how to respond, but there is now the risk of terrorism.
"Since Sept. 11, we have to think about what was once unthinkable," Matheson said.
Matheson would not speculate on why most of his colleagues oppose nuclear waste in Tooele County but not at Yucca Mountain. That contradiction is all the more glaring considering that the two proposals, he believes, are tied at the hip.
Then add to the mix the government's long history of lying to Western states about the dangers of nuclear byproducts — what Matheson calls "a legacy of mistrust and despair."
"The fact is Utah and Nevada have paid dearly for their patriotism and trust during the Cold War," he said. "Enough is enough."
Leavitt may not be openly supporting Nevada, but at least one member of his staff — Dianne Nielson, executive director of the Department of Environmental Quality — is warning that Utahns should be concerned about Yucca Mountain and its unavoidable link to a "temporary" waste dump on Goshute tribal lands in Skull Valley.
Why? Simple mathematics, she said.
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the nation currently has a stockpile of about 46,000 tons of nuclear waste from power plants, and it is increasing by about 2,000 tons a year. The Department of Energy predicts the amount of waste generated will drop as nuclear-power plants are decommissioned, but there will be at least 105,000 tons of power-plant radioactive waste by 2045.
Yucca Mountain will have a capacity to take only about 63,000 tons (additional space is also reserved for about 14,000 tons of military nuclear waste). That leaves about 42,000 tons of nuclear waste without a permanent home.
It is not coincidence, Nielson said, that the Skull Valley site will have a capacity of 40,000 tons — roughly the leftovers that won't fit inside Yucca Mountain.
"A lot of people presume that if Yucca Mountain is built, the (Skull Valley) facility won't be needed," Nielson said. But by 2045, Yucca Mountain will be full, and "there will be 42,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods with no other place to go except to Utah. And there will be nothing temporary about it."
Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of nuclear-power utilities, says it needs the Skull Valley facility to store 40,000 tons of waste, but only until a permanent solution is built at Yucca Mountain, which longtime PFS project manager Scott Northard formally endorsed Wednesday in an op-ed article published in the Deseret News.
The consortium has a 20-year lease with the Skull Valley band of Goshutes, and it has a second 20-year option. The PFS proposal calls for 40,000 tons of spent fuel rods to be transported by railroad to Goshute tribal lands where they will be stored in above-ground casks — unlike Yucca Mountain, where the waste would be deposited deep inside the mountain.
Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn
On Thursday, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said the nation needs Yucca Mountain because, in part, it would be much safer than storing waste in above-ground canisters at Skull Valley — the first hints from the Bush administration that temporary storage in Utah may not be the preferred solution.
However, Abraham also said that without Yucca Mountain, the waste would probably be shipped to temporary sites, like Utah.
As Leavitt suggests, why not just leave the waste where it is? "I think that is a preposterous assertion on its face," Abraham said, asserting the nation will not tolerate nuclear waste near major metropolitan centers and waterways.
"It isn't going to happen that way," he said. "You're going to have the shipping and the transportation to sites like the one being proposed on the Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah."
The Atomic Safety Licensing Board is currently in Salt Lake City conducting the final round of hearings on PFS's license application. It has already ruled that PFS does not need to examine the transportation risks associated with that project, unlike the Yucca Mountain proposal that underwent a detailed examination of transportation risks.
Nevada officials say there is a certain irony in Utah's failure to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Nevada in the nuclear-waste fight.
Not only has Nevada offered its technical expertise to Utah over the years, but Nevada has been fighting the battle longer and the opposition is much better organized and funded — resources that could benefit Utah far more in a unified effort.
They also point to the remarkable similarities between the two opposition strategies. Both states are challenging the safety of nuclear-waste transportation, both states are challenging the scientific studies that support the proposed location of the waste facilities in desert locales near major metropolitan areas, and both states are using all their limited congressional muscle to block the proposals in Washington.
Both states cite the detrimental impact of the proposals to state and local economies, to real-estate values and tourism, and to wildlife and water.
And both are using the argument the waste is safer left where it is now, at nuclear-power plants across the country, rather than risking accidents and terrorist attacks that could jeopardize millions along the transportation routes.
Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt
"About the only difference," said Erickson, "is that Yucca Mountain has the potential for volcanic activity. They both share the same potential for earthquakes and groundwater contamination."
So why aren't the Utah and Nevada politicos working together?
"That is a question everyone in Nevada wants to know the answer to," said Bob Haldstead, who once advised Utah Goshutes opposed to the Skull Valley plan and is now working with the Nevada delegation to try to block Yucca Mountain.
Utahns have mixed feelings about the entire nuclear-waste problem. Opposition to the Skull Valley proposal remains high, at 79 percent in a recent Deseret News/KSL-TV poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates.
While Utahns clearly don't want the waste in their own back yard, the poll found that 52 percent of Utahns strongly or somewhat agreed with Bush's decision to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain; only 24 percent were opposed.
Erickson believes that Utah "support" for Yucca Mountain will turn around once people realize the transportation risks involved and that 90 percent of all Yucca-bound waste will come through Utah — most along the Wasatch Front.
"People just don't realize that sending the waste to Yucca Mountain means sending it to and through Utah," Erickson said.
Erickson may be right. Utahns are clearly worried about the dangers of nuclear-waste shipments, according to the Deseret News/KSL-TV poll that found that 77 percent were very or somewhat concerned about railroad shipments of waste (the poll did not address truck shipments, which are inherently riskier).
"Utahns ought to be worried about high-level waste transportation to and through Utah regardless of where it is going," Nielson said.
So why, then, is the state not actively campaigning against Yucca Mountain? Nielson said the more immediate threat is Skull Valley, and the state has focused all its attention on stopping PFS.
"The gorilla in our case is PFS," she said. "We are certainly watching Yucca Mountain, but the first train wreck is PFS. We are afraid of that, literally."
A mountain just 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, America's premier gambling resort destination, has been approved by the secretary of energy as the nation's long term geological repository for high level nuclear waste.
Over the objections of Nevada politicians in both parties at every level of government, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham today notified Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn and the Nevada Legislature that in 30 days he intends to recommend to President George W. Bush that the Yucca Mountain site is scientifically sound and suitable to hold radioactive waste.
Secretary Abraham said the development of Yucca Mountain "will help ensure America's national security and secure disposal of nuclear waste, provide for a cleaner environment, and support energy security."
Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn, a Republican, said he got the news by phone this morning in a telephone call from Secretary Abraham.
"I told him that I am damn disappointed in this decision and to expect my veto," Governor Guinn said. "I explained to him we will fight it in the Congress, in the Oval Office, in every regulatory body we can , we'll take all of our arguments to the courts. This fight is far from over."
"I also told him that on behalf of all Nevadans, I am outraged that he is allowing politics to override sound science," the governor said.
"At the conclusion of the call I told the secretary that I think this decision stinks, the whole process stinks, and we'll see him in court."
The state of Nevada filed a lawsuit December 17, 2001 in federal district court in Washington, DC to halt the Yucca Mountain Project. The state alleges that Energy Department's ground rules for judging whether the site is suitable for nuclear waste storage are contrary to what Congress intended.
The state asks that Secretary Abraham be prevented from making recommendations on Yucca Mountain until the ground rules are reviewed by the courts.
Governor Guinn says the state is well prepared with a legal team that includes nuclear scientists, physicists and environmental experts, all with law degrees.
But Secretary Abraham toured the Yucca Mountain site on Monday and says he believes the "science behind this project is sound and that the site is technically suitable for this purpose."
"There are compelling national interests that require us to complete the siting process and move forward with the development of a repository, as Congress mandated almost 20 years ago," Abraham said today.
"A repository is important to our national security," the secretary said. "We must advance our non-proliferation goals by providing a secure place to dispose of any spent fuel and other waste products that result from decommissioning unneeded nuclear weapons, and ensure the effective operations of our nuclear Navy by providing a secure place to dispose of its spent nuclear fuel."
"A repository is important to the secure disposal of nuclear waste. Spent nuclear fuel, high level radioactive waste, and excess plutonium for which there is no complete disposal pathway without a repository are currently stored at over 131 sites in 39 states. We should consolidate the nuclear wastes to enhance protection against terrorists attacks by moving them to one underground location that is far from population centers," he said.
"A repository is important to our energy security," Abraham said. "We must ensure that nuclear power, which provides 20 percent of the nation's electric power, remains an important part of our domestic energy production."
"And a repository is important to our efforts to protect the environment," said Abraham. "We must clean up our defense waste sites permanently and safely dispose of other high level nuclear waste."
Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat who holds the powerful position of Majority Whip called Abraham's decision "hasty and dangerous."
"It will come despite the growing mountain of evidence that the site is unsuitable and that this site recommendation is premature," said Reid who pins his hopes on President Bush who must agree on what Reid calls "the flawed report."
"After he receives the secretary's report, President Bush has an opportunity to cut through the bureaucratic pseudo-science, see this project for the sham that it is, and do the right thing for America and Nevada by changing course," Reid said.
Reid says the Department of Energy "has wasted $8 billion on Yucca Mountain and has virtually nothing to show for it. Now they want taxpayers to spend another $50 billion to develop a dump they can't prove to be safe. I hope the President will just say no."
If the President agrees the site is suitable for a repository, he would recommend it to Congress. Guinn and the Nevada Legislature would then have 60 days to submit a notice of disapproval to Congress, as they are expected to do.
If the governor and the Legislature decline to veto the site during the 60 day period, Yucca Mountain automatically becomes an approved repository site.
But if Guinn and the Legislature submit a notice of disapproval, Congress has the option of passing a joint resolution to override the veto within the first 90 days of a continuous congressional session. If Congress takes this action, the joint resolution becomes law and the site is approved.
The Energy Department then is required to file a license application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission 90 days after the site recommendation.
Nevada opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository is bipartisan. Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, called the decision "grossly irresponsible."
"As outlined by the December 2001 GAO [General Accounting Office] report," she said, "the secretary does not have the scientific data he needs to recommend the site, and any recommendation is therefore scientifically premature."
Secretary Abraham's reasons "defy common sense," she said. "The so-called 'compelling national interests' cited by the secretary are more effectively addressed by the continued and reinforced storage of spent fuel at the reactor sites themselves. Furthermore, the secretary's claim that the repository would further our national security is completely mistaken. In fact, the transportation of nuclear waste through 43 states, and the construction of a single identifiable repository outside the fastest growing metropolitan region in the country, are gross and needless risks to our national security, and a slap in the face to every Nevadan."
"The secretary's claim that the repository is important to protect the environment is dangerously misleading," said Berkley. "Scientists have uncovered compelling evidence suggesting that the site could be devastating to the environment for tens of thousands of years."
In a document released today along with the notification, the Department of Energy characterizes Yucca Mountain as safe and far enough from Las Vegas so that it does not create a hazardous situation. "The mountain sits on restricted federal land: part of the Nevada Test Site, combined with portions of the Nellis Air Force Range and parcels managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Since January 1951, over 900 U.S. nuclear weapon tests have been conducted at the Nevada Test Site. The U.S. Geological Survey and national laboratories have been studying the areaÍs geology and hydrology since the start of atomic testing...Yucca Mountain would be one of the few nuclear facilities located in a remote area where there are no metropolitan centers within 75 miles."
"Water is the main means of transporting radionuclides out of a repository and into the accessible environment. Yucca Mountain is located in one of the most arid and remote deserts in the United States," says the Department of Energy (DOE).
"Yucca Mountain also has many natural barriers that limit or delay what little water is available from entering the emplacement drifts. DOE has designed a set of engineered barriers that take advantage of the natural features and work in concert with the natural environment to isolate waste for tens of thousands of years... Only about one percent of the waste packages are projected to lose their integrity during the first 80,000 years."
But a range of citizens groups object to Yucca Mountain on environmental grounds. Kalynda Tilges of Citizen Alert, a Las Vegas based organization which has taken the lead in this campaign, says her group works with the Sierra Club and with Friends of Nevada Wilderness to educate the public about the dangers of burying nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain - even with engineered barriers.
"What makes the mountain unsafe is that there's a lot of seismic activity in that area," Tilges said Monday. "There's a lot of volcanic cones out there and the DOE has state they have no idea if there's even magma under Yucca Mountain. There's 15 faults that run through the mountain, and they're already shown that water travels through the mountain very, very fast. It's not nearly as dry as they thought it was."
Water travelling through Yucca Mountain would allow radioactivity to escape from the repository, Tilges warns. "It means superheated steam with corrosive minerals in there that will eat right through the canisters and expose the waste into the heat and into the rock. And the Department of Energy still doesn't know how this is all going to react together."
OHIO TAKES DU
Waste takes long way home
MAYOR: 'I just have a terrible, terrible time understanding how they can justify appeasing Oak Ridge and bringing it the long way around through Oliver Springs.'
When it comes to shipments of waste cylinders, Oak Ridge's loss is apparently Oliver Springs' and Clinton's gain, according to at least one official. Oliver Springs Mayor Ed Kelley confirmed that shipments of depleted uranium hexafluoride cylinders have been coming through his town, hitting Highway 61 to Clinton and ending up on Interstate 75 to Ohio. He also noted that one of the trucks hauling the material was involved in a minor traffic accident last month.
On the other hand, Clinton Mayor Wimp Shoopman said he was unaware that the waste was being shipped through his city.
The depleted uranium hexafluoride in question is a byproduct of an operation where uranium was ultimately processed into nuclear reactor fuel and weapons-grade material. Stored in cylinders at the Oak Ridge K-25 site, the material is being shipped to Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Ohio.
Transport of the waste cylinders was met with a little controversy last year when it appeared the material would be hauled through the city of Oak Ridge. Though DOE and its cleanup contractor, Bechtel Jacobs Co., have declined to disclose transport routes, some officials have suggested that Oak Ridge Turnpike was never considered for use in transporting the material to Clinton and I-75.
"I just have a terrible, terrible time understanding how they can justify appeasing Oak Ridge and bringing it the long way around through Oliver Springs," said Kelley, who added the shipments come out of K-25 and hit Blair Road en route to Oliver Springs.
The Oliver Springs mayor said the early morning waste shipments stopped at least three times at the school crossing in front of Norwood schools. Kelley also said at least one of the transport trucks has been involved in a traffic accident.
A report filed by Oliver Springs Police Officer Tim Elmore indicates a vehicle ran into one of the trucks while it was preparing to turn onto Highway 61 to go to Clinton. The driver of the cylinder truck was not at fault, and neither the transport truck nor its load was reportedly damaged.
Kelley said DOE had a "screaming fit" because Oliver Springs officials released the truck involved in the accident so it could proceed to its destination.
"We didn't have any idea what we were supposed to do," Kelley said.
Both DOE spokesman Walter Perry and Bechtel Jacobs spokesman Dennis Hill said they were unaware of any other accidents involving the cylinder transport trucks. They also declined to confirm the transport route mention by Kelley or comment on whether multiple routes are being utilized.
Hill said more than 700 cylinders have been shipped to date, with about 5,200 remaining to be transported to Portsmouth. The goal is to have all of the cylinders out of Oak Ridge by the end of fiscal year 2005.
"The frequency and size of individual shipments is security sensitive information," Hill said. "Because of that, we don't want people to have enough information to calculate how many or how often cylinders are shipped."
With more shipments ahead, Kelley has sent a letter to DOE requesting that the federal agency make some kind of payment to Oliver Springs because the "large and heavy trucks" will be using roads through the town. The mayor said the payments would be used to maintain and upgrade streets in addition to various other projects to improve the town.
Public Citizen released the following August 31, 2004:
A Victory for Consumers in Yucca Mountain Fight; NRC Overrules Energy Department's Claim That It Made Information Public
Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) judicial arm, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, unanimously ruled today that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) failed to make publicly available on the Internet all documents related to the Yucca Mountain Project, as required by law. As a result, Yucca Mountain's timeline has once again been postponed due to the government's inability to follow its own guidelines.
Federal regulation requires the DOE to make all of its documentary information related to its Yucca Mountain license application available online six months in advance of filing its application. Therefore, to meet its self-imposed application deadline of December 2004, the DOE would have had to post all its supporting documents online by June 30, 2004. At 5 p.m. on June 30 - exactly six months to the day - DOE certified in writing that its documentary material was "available."
Posting all relevant Yucca Mountain documents online allows the public to review the materials and participate effectively in the Yucca Mountain licensing proceedings. This purpose cannot be achieved unless the Web site is fully functional and complete.
Despite DOE's self-certification, all of the information related to the Yucca Mountain licensing application was not available to the public on June 30, nor is it all available to this day. The agency admitted to the licensing board that of the estimated 2.1 million documents related to the project, only half are posted online, although officials did not explain why. In addition, more than four million e-mails related to research on the Yucca Mountain Project - often important sources of information - have not been posted.
According to the licensing board, "[W]e conclude that because of the incompleteness of its document review and production, the many years that DOE has had to gather and produce its documents, and the fact the date of production was effectively within DOE's control, DOE's document production on June 30, 2004, did not satisfy its obligation to make, in good faith, all of its documentary material available pursuant to" NRC's regulations. The NRC will not accept the DOE's licensing application until six months after all the documents have been made available, meaning the project will be delayed indefinitely until the documents are posted.
The DOE does not appear to be capable of this task. Together with the recent court ruling that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) illegally set a 10,000-year compliance period for the radiation release standards of groundwater at Yucca Mountain (a ruling that also has delayed the project), it is clear that the Yucca Mountain Project is flawed both in its science and in its management and should be abandoned.