Originally created 07/06/97

Waste piles up while radioactive dump delayed



Standing in the yard outside his Waynesboro, Ga., mobile home, Robert Martin Lay can see the steam rise from Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant's two cooling towers a mile away.

Day and night, atoms split apart in the nuclear power plant's reactor cores, generating heat and ultimately electricity for Georgia homes and businesses. And every year, the inventory of burned-out, radioactive fuel rods grows in Plant Vogtle's deep storage basin - waste with nowhere to go.

"I live right here. These nuclear plants don't scare me, I know they're well controlled," said Mr. Lay, who has worked at Plant Vogtle for the past six years. "But the government said they were going to take care of this waste and all these companies have been paying for years and years to store it. I say the government is wrong to be putting it off."

The Department of Energy remains optimistic its much-delayed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada will be found viable next year. That would set in motion a process to license and construct the repository by 2010, just a few years before Plant Vogtle runs out of storage for its spent fuel.

But two recent studies raise new questions about the underground desert repository 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas - questions opponents hope will scuttle the controversial project once and for all.

Last year, federal researchers concluded that rain water had trickled through Yucca Mountain's rock layers in just 40 years and into the area where the waste would be kept.

That means more water than expected might percolate through the mountain and corrode the steel canisters designed to hold the waste for at least 10,000 years. If that happened, potentially lethal radioactive materials could leak into the environment, critics say.

Then last month, two Colorado scientists claimed that the waves of a magnitude 5 or 6 earthquake could push ground water from below into the dump, possibly with the same result. A tremor that registered 5.6 on the Richter scale hit the area as recently as 1992, damaging some older buildings a few miles from Yucca Mountain.

"This site will never work out," predicted Bob Loux, director of Nevada's agency for nuclear projects, which is fighting the repository. "I think that will be proven in the next few years."

If studying Yucca Mountain "is about good science, this should shake them up," said Bill Magavern of Public Citizen, a Washington advocacy group that also opposes the project. "Yucca is not a good place to bury nuclear waste."

Energy Department spokesman Erik Olds wouldn't jump to conclusions quite so fast.

As far as the earthquake study goes, that issue already has been put to rest by the National Academy of Sciences, which found no basis for the theory that seismic waves could send ground water into the repository, he said.

And if more rainwater than expected seeps from above into pockets and faults in the rugged mountain you could probably "engineer around that," he said.

"It's a little too soon to say what the impact of these studies will be," he said. "We have to look at the performance of the whole system, not just a discrete part of it."

Andrew Wolfsberg, a hydrologist with Los Alamos National Laboratory who worked on the rainwater study, said most water residue found inside the mountain was between 3,000 and 25,000 years old. That proves that rainwater seeps through the rock layers very slowly, he said.

James Quinn of Citizen Alert, a Nevada-based environmental group, countered that such responses are only to be expected by federal officials and those working for the government.

"They're determined to put the repository there, come hell or high water," he said.

As the bickering about the desert waste dump continues, states throughout the country are anxiously watching the exploration of the site. One of them is South Carolina, which has long complained about nuclear waste piling up at Savannah River Site.

By 2010, the plant near Aiken expects to have more than 3,000 steel canisters filled with high-level waste converted into glass. The highly radioactive glass logs are kept in the floor of an SRS storage building until they can be shipped to the Yucca Mountain burial ground - if it opens.

SRS is also receiving spent nuclear fuel from foreign countries and other federal facilities that's expected to join other wastes at the underground dump one day.

"Savannah River Site has never been and should never be a longterm solution to the nation's high-level nuclear waste storage problem," said Gary Karr, press secretary for South Carolina Gov. David Beasley. "There's always going to be someone who says we can't put it (in our state), but we have to have a longterm solution. South Carolina is going to do whatever it can, and the governor do whatever he can, to make sure the federal government fulfills its responsibility."

Meanwhile, Southern Nuclear Operating Co., which operates Plant Vogtle, is spending millions of dollars to upgrade its fuel storage capacity at its Waynesboro facility and two other nuclear power plants.

Plant Vogtle will be getting $2 million worth of new racks in its storage basin next year. Plant Hatch, near Baxley, Ga., must build an entirely new storage facility in the next few years that could add $4 million in annual operating costs to the plant, said Rick Kimble, a spokesman for Southern Nuclear.

Ken McCoy, vice president of Plant Vogtle, said the utility's customers in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi already have contributed more than $500 million to the federal government to help construct the overdue waste dump.

If ratepayers like Mr. Lay in Waynesboro feel betrayed by the federal government's waste policy - or failure thereof - so do many people in Nevada.

"Yucca Mountain was not picked because it made sense scientifically, it was picked because Nevada has a weak congressional delegation," Mr. Loux said. "That's the problem with this program. That's why it will never work out."