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Copyright 1999 Federal News Service, Inc.  
Federal News Service



LENGTH: 2975 words



Thank you for the opportunity to present Public Citizen's view on civilian high-level radioactive waste. Public Citizen is a non-profit, non-partisan, consumer research and advocacy organization with 150,000 members nationwide. We accept no funding from corporations, governments, or trade associations.
Because of the long-term potent threat to public health, safety and the environment, over the past 25 years Public Citizen has been actively engaged in the public policy debate about the responsible disposition of nuclear waste.
The highly irradiated nuclear fuel from commercial reactors is one of the most toxic substances known to man. No nation has found the long- term answer to the problem of isolating this extremely dangerous waste from humans and the environment for the 1000 millennia during which it remains highly toxic and hazardous. The decisions made today about the disposition of waste will have ramifications for the next 30,000 generations to come. In the past, policy makers have not heeded the warnings of the public interest community about nuclear waste policy. As a result, fateful decisions concerning nuclear waste policy were made. Listen to our warnings over the years:
In the 1970s, when new nuclear plants were still being planned, we cautioned policy makers about the inadvisability of relying on an energy source with an intractable waste problem. In the late 1970s, when citizens who lived near nuclear power plants became extremely apprehensive about nuclear waste disposal, national organizations and citizen's groups educated policy makers, the media, and the public about the enormous dangers, ramifications and costs. Prior to the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, policy makers were warned by Public Citizen and other environmental organizations that the scientific knowledge necessary for locating and evaluating permanent site locations based on a geological evaluation did not yet exist. Then when the 1982 law was amended in 1987 to make Yucca Mountain the only candidate site for a permanent repository, we told policy makers repeatedly that the decision was wrong because it was based on politics, not science.
In retrospect, had policy makers listened to the warnings concerning nuclear waste and the laws pertaining to it, we would not have had the string of public policy failures related to nuclear waste. At a minimum, the DOE would not be spending taxpayer money to defend the government's inability to meet impossible deadlines. Instead of wasting tax dollars, millions of dollars in public funds could have been devoted to scientific research to search for an acceptable disposition of nuclear waste.
Today, I must report that the "solution" has still not been discovered and that the nuclear industry, richer and more powerful than ever, is still lobbying for a legislated mandate to take the highly toxic waste it created off its hands. Hastily passed legislation mandating a massive transportation scheme to an inappropriate site would be yet another wrong decision to be regretted in the future. The evidence is compelling. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1999, H.R. 45, mandates a premature and false solution to the nuclear waste problem that would have many consequences for future generations. Let us examine the evidence.
First, we should be clear, no emergency exists that requires the immediate removal of nuclear waste from its current storage facilities at commercial reactors. For almost two decades, the nuclear industry has lobbied policy makers in an attempt to solve its public relations problems in communities where reactors are located and to reduce its liability risks.
In reality, centralizing interim storage, as mandated by H.R. 45, would increase the risks to public health and safety. Although high- level waste should not stay at the point of generation forever, in the short-term it creates less risk than moving it. While we should never belittle the risks of on-site storage: the risks posed by operating nuclear reactors dwarfs the risks posed by the nuclear waste stored next to the reactor.Even though the nuclear industry claims that declining space in reactor fuel pools is a major crisis, utilities are able to expand their on-site storage capacity with dry casks, and many have already done so. Although we believe that dry-cask storage on site is the least unsafe method of storing nuclear waste, this does not mean that we endorse either the particular ways in which this technology is being implemented or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) lax oversight of casks. While we do not believe that high-level waste should stay at the point of generation forever, we have not seen any evidence that we should rush to move the waste to an inadequate and unsafe interim storage facility. Storing the waste on-site for the interim will allow the scientific community to continue researching for better options.
Second, the risk posed by moving 100,000 shipments of highly irradiated nuclear waste on the roads and rails of 43 states and 320 congressional districts, over the next 30 years, is immense. The mandate in H.R. 45 for hauling waste to an interim storage facility represents a massive 4350% increase in nuclear waste shipments, exposing 50 million American citizens who live within a half-mile of the transport route to untold and grotesque risks.
Crashes will happen. In reviewing the Department of Transportation (DOT) data on hazardous material crashes, we found that 99,490 crashes caused the release of hazardous material into the environment over a 10-year period, from 1986 to 1996. The result of these crashes was not only $317 million in damages, but 114 deaths, 356 major injuries, and 4305 minor injuries.
Based upon DOE assumptions about the nuclear waste shipments, we can project 210 to 354 crashes will occur in the next 30 years if H.R. 45 becomes law. Furthermore, testing procedures for nuclear waste transport casks are inadequate and will likely lead to horrible injuries and contamination from nuclear waste crashes. A conservative DOE crash scenario of a crash in a rural area suggests massive cleanup efforts would be necessary, costing $620 million,requiring 460 days to detoxify the estimated 42 square miles. Urban crashes would be even more severe in terms of horrible injuries and an increased likelihood of radiation exposure to innocent victims.
Last week, we had a preview of the types of crashes we can expect to see if H.R. 45 becomes law. In Chicago, a truck improperly shipping empty nuclear material canisters struck an overpass, knocking canisters off the truck and on to other cars. Fortunately the canisters were empty. Even so, the highway, a major Chicago thoroughfare was shut down for several hours. The potential damage from crashes involving highly radioactive nuclear waste could be devastating. The public recognizes the potential problems. A recent poll found that 82% of those surveyed do not want to live near a nuclear waste transport route. As a result, members of Congress who vote for legislation mandating this transportation will have to explain their vote on H.R. 45 to constituents who overwhelmingly and adamantly oppose its provisions. It should be remembered that passage of H.R. 45 will result in waste transportation through 320 congressional districts.

Third, the Viability Assessment (VA), the DOE's report on the Yucca Mountain site, provides conclusive evidence that the Yucca Mountain dump should never be built, based on DOE's own guidelines. A key piece of evidence is the data showing that water travel time from the repository to the accessible environment is only about 500 years. This is indeed shocking. It indicates that serious health hazards will be present at and around the Yucca Mountain site over the long term because nuclear waste remains highly toxic.
A report in the January 7, 1999 issue of Nature provides further evidence that migration of radioactive material through groundwater occurs at a much faster rate than previously understood. Plutonium from an underground nuclear weapons test, conducted 30 years ago at the Nevada Test Site, has been detected in a test well located nearly a mile from the blast site. Further evidence can be gleaned from a report issued in December 1998 by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Recent geological sampling indicates that warm groundwater has flooded the region where the proposed repository is to be located.
The Viability Assessment and the other scientific documentation provides dramatic proof of the lack of certainty surrounding predictions of how long radionuclides can be isolated. This compelling information should make the Yucca Mountain site ineligible for a waste dump according to DOE's disqualifying conditions in their own guidelines.
Related to this, H.R. 45 does not protect the public from dangerous levels of radiation in groundwater. Not only does H.R. 45 preempt the Safe Drinking Water act, it fails to provide any protection for groundwater, the key pathway of exposure to radiation.
Fourth, the Viability Assessment contains estimates of radiation exposure indicating that a large increase in cancer rates may occur in the area around Yucca Mountain. The exposure models demonstrate that the amount of radiation that the population living near the site will be exposed to will peak at 300 millirems over a period of 300,000 years. This almost doubles current background radiation at Yucca Mountain. It will result in a dose 20 times larger than the amount allowed by standards applied to other waste dumps. DOE falsely asserts that since the national average for background radiation is 360 millirem per year, that a 300 millirem increase per year is not an issue. However, science dictates that additional exposure to radiation causes additional cancer. Therefore, any increase, no matter how small, in background levels of radiation is intolerable, and doubling the local exposure is absolutely immoral.
Unfortunately, DOE and the nuclear industry will not admit that the Yucca Mountain site is inappropriate. And, the nuclear industry continues to try to convince lawmakers to reduce the protective standards for radiation exposure. By legislating a weaker level of protection than recommended by the National Academy of Sciences, the bill establishes a standard that fails to protect children, pregnant women and other vulnerable populations.
Fifth, the bill does further damage by preempting federal, state and local laws that are more protective than H.R. 45. The overly broad language ensures that local and state governments cannot require extra protections for their citizens. These laws are preempted automatically if they pose any obstacle to implementing the law. It is truly amazing that in Congress whose leaders claim to revere the 10th Amendment and states rights, legislation such as this dealing literally with life and death, contains some of the most extreme preemption of state law ever proposed. Instead of setting a national floor for safety that states can enhance, it prohibits states from being able to protect its citizens.
The bill also severely curtails the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), one of the most important environmental laws ever enacted. This means that a legitimate review of environmental issues at the Yucca Mountain site can not take place today or ever. It excludes from any consideration of several key factors, including the need for the facility and alternatives to the site. Thus without any crisis or justification, this extremely hazardous facility would be exempted from the basic provisions for environmental review that are required for federal actions that have significant impacts on the environment.
Not only are all federal laws preempted if they are inconsistent with H.R. 45, it would also prohibit EPA from setting a radiation protection standard. As mentioned above, a ground water standard is absolutely essential to protecting public health and safety. We challenge the idea that Congress has more scientific experience in setting radiation standards than EPA.
Sixth, H.R. 45 completely ignores new scientific evidence about earthquakes. In January of 1999, hundreds of earthquakes struck the Nevada Test Site near the proposed interim storage facility, the largest of which registered a magnitude of 4.7 on the Richter scale. From 1976 to 1996, 621 earthquakes with a magnitude of 2.5 or greater occurred within 50 miles of Yucca Mountain. In 1992, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck on a previously unmapped fault, 8 miles from Yucca Mountain, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to a local DOE building. The threat is highlighted in a report in the March 27, 1998 issue of Science. Scientists from Harvard and the California Institute of Technology, using a network of satellites, recalculated the geological expansion rate at Yucca Mountain. They found the rate of expansion to be 10 times greater than DOE assumptions, thus raising significant questions about the frequency of large earthquakes and volcanic activity at Yucca Mountain. So much for safe disposition of high-level nuclear waste than delivers a lethal dose of radiation in 3 minutes.
Seventh, the bill forces taxpayers, as well as the industry, to pay for the ever-increasing cost of disposition. An independent cost assessment from February 1998, reviewed by KPMG Peat Marwick, warns of the ever-widening shortfall in funding for the site. The $25 billion shortfall is a result of the escalating costs for the permanent repository and the additional costs of building the proposed interim storage facility. A more recent report by Synapse Energy, Stranded Nuclear Waste, projects that the shortfall could rise to $45 billion if nuclear power plant retirement continues as a result of regulation.
The situation surrounding these plants strongly suggest that the fees ultimately placed on ratepayers will have to be increased to prevent taxpayers from further subsidizing nuclear waste disposition. The funding mechanism in H.R. 45 will cause an even greater shortfall than the mechanism in the nuclear waste legislation from the 105th Congress, H.R. 1270. It further reduces the amount of money the industry must pay for the nuclear waste program, while increasing the cost of it. This is unacceptable.Eighth, H.R. 45 is likely to cost taxpayers more money from litigation because it continues the trend in nuclear waste policy of setting irrational deadlines. The on-going litigation against DOE by the nuclear utilities is the result of the foolish deadlines established in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Several federal agencies testified that the 1998 deadline was unreasonably short. The industry lobbied for the deadlines and they are using DOE's failure to meet them as a reason to sue.
The utility estimates for potential damages are outrageous and the courts have yet to assign any damage amounts. In response to the litigation, DOE is making a good faith effort to settle the issues raised by the utilities by providing a cash settlement. While we do not endorse this payment, we question the motivations of the utilities in rejecting it. It seems that they wish to keep the lawsuit going because it serves their political agenda.
The industry's claim that the on-going litigation is proof that H.R. 45 is necessary is completely false. If passed into law, the legislation will create the same problem that previous nuclear waste legislation has created--more impractical deadlines and lawsuits. This has been a costly mistake in the past and it should not be a mistake that is repeated. If passed, H.R. 45 may result in more lawsuits against the government that must be paid for by taxpayer.
In conclusion, H.R. 45 is bad public policy. Rushing to move waste to an interim storage facility in Nevada violates the public's trust that their health, safety and pocketbooks will be protected by their Representatives and the Department of Energy. Rather than solving the nuclear waste problem, H.R. 45 will worsen it. The scientific evidence is mounting that Yucca Mountain cannot be the site for the permanent storage of high-level waste. As a result of the evidence, 219 environmental organizations petitioned the DOE to disqualify Yucca Mountain. The petition established both legal and scientific grounds for the disqualification. The environmental community is united in opposing H.R. 45, not only because of the inherent dangers I have described today, but because the concept of "interim" storage is really a charade.
We see only two options if the legislation passes and waste is shipped to an interim storage facility at the Yucca Mountain site. The first scenario is that under severe industry pressure the so-called interim storage facility would in fact become permanent, without any of the necessary safeguards. The other possibility is that the waste would have to be moved once again, needlessly increasing the risks of crashes involving radioactive waste.
We urge members of this Committee to carefully consider the full and real implications of H.R. 45. The nuclear industry is extremely powerful and it has used its political and financial muscle to force bad public policy decisions in the past. In the 1998 election cycle, Members of the House of Representatives have accepted $8.7 million in PAC contributions from the lobbying arm of the nuclear industry, the Nuclear Energy Institute and its members. In addition, members of NEI contributed over $3.7 million in soft money contributions to the national political parties in the 1998 election cycle. We hope that the Members of this Subcommittee on Energy and Power can look past the money and reject H.R 45 as ill-conceived and dangerous legislation.

LOAD-DATE: February 11, 1999

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