Originally created 06/08/01

Fight over nuclear waste site health standards heads to court



WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration agreed to tougher health protection requirements for a proposed nuclear waste site in Nevada, ignoring pleas from the nuclear industry and Republican allies in Congress.

The requirements announced by the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday would limit radiation exposure from the Yucca Mountain site to no more than 15 millirems a year for people 11 miles away, including no more than 4 millirems from groundwater.

A millirem is a measurement of the biological effects of radiation on human tissue. According to the EPA, the standard would mean a person living 11 miles from the waste site would absorb every year a little less radiation than a person would get from two roundtrip transcontinental airline flights.

By comparison, background radiation exposes people to about 360 millirems of radiation annually. Three chest X-rays expose a person to about 18 millirem, the agency said.

The Nuclear Energy Institute responded with separate lawsuits in two federal courts challenging the EPA standard. The industry had sought less stringent standards, arguing that recommendations from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of a 25 millirems overall limit and no groundwater standards would provide safety to people living near the site.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who has favored the NRC proposal, said the EPA standards were "tough and challenging" and that "we believe we can meet the requirements."

The government's health standards for the Nevada site have been considered crucial in determining whether the federal underground storage facility at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, can be built.

The scientific review of the site has not been completed. Abraham is expected to make a recommendation to President Bush this year with a final decision by the president likely in early 2002. The plan is to keep 70,000 tons of used reactor fuel now at commercial power plants in canisters 600 feet below the surface.

Nevada officials say the federal government has failed to prove that the waste, which will stay highly radioactive for tens of thousands of years, would not contaminate an aquifer running through the area and surrounding countryside. The state also has protested transportation plans for thousands of shipments of waste, including some traveling near Las Vegas.

The EPA standard is designed to limit public exposure to any contamination over the next 10,000 years.

"Under these standards, future generations will be securely protected," Christie Whitman, the EPA administrator, said in a statement. She said the limits were designed "to ensure that people living near this potential repository will be protected now and for future generation."

The nuclear industry moved quickly to challenge the standard, suing in U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

"The nuclear industry is extremely disappointed," said Marvin Fertel, director of business operation at the NEI, the industry trade group. He said the added groundwater exposure limits "will cost taxpayers and electricity consumers billions of additional dollars to license and build the repository without making the facility any safer."

Some environmentalists and nuclear watchdog groups said the standards were inadequate.

"The EPA has created an exclusion zone to safe drinking water," said Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear physicist involved in the anti-nuclear movement. Makhijani said that people live within several miles of the site, but the groundwater tests will be taken 11 miles away.

Also, he and other critics said, the standard would apply for 10,000 years, while the maximum radiation exposure from decaying isotopes is projected to be many years beyond that.

In a related development, a National Academy of Sciences report Wednesday said deep geological disposal "remains the only long-term solution" for dealing with nuclear waste despite the difficulty in winning public support for a repository.

The report said wastes can be kept above ground safely, but that the major uncertainty would be "in the confidence that future societies will continue to monitor and maintain such facilities" for tens of thousands of years.

On the Net:

Energy Department's Yucca Mountain project: http://www.ymp.gov/

National Academy of Sciences: http://www.nas.edu/