Documents reveal DOE collaborating with nuclear industry on Yucca Mountain

LAS VEGAS - The Energy Department has been working behind the scenes with the nuclear industry to prepare a report that will recommend Yucca Mountain as the site for the nation's high-level nuclear waste repository, the Las Vegas Sun reported Friday in a copyright story.

Federal law prohibits the department from taking sides during the site-selection process.

A draft of a 60-page department overview concludes that Yucca Mountain is safe to store radioactive waste, even though an extensive study of the site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas has not been completed.

Attached to the draft is a two-page note, written by department contractors, suggesting the overview is designed to help nuclear industry officials sell the Yucca Mountain project to Congress.

Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, both D-Nev., reacted angrily, calling the note evidence of bias by the department. But Ivan Itkin, director of the department's Radioactive Waste Management office in Washington, disavowed the language of the two-page note, though he confirmed it was attached to the first draft of the overview a couple of months ago.

''The department's position, as long as I'm director, is to do a professional job - that is, to make a scientific and technical evaluation of Yucca Mountain to see if it's suitable for the repository,'' he said.

The note has been removed from subsequent drafts, Itkin said. Still, he acknowledged he is close to recommending Yucca Mountain as a safe site for the repository, which would store 77,000 tons of the nation's high level nuclear waste.

''We do not see any show-stoppers,'' he said. ''So far, the work that we've done leaves us to suspect this could be a suitable site. But we need to do further scientific work.''

Nevada scientific experts have called the site unsafe.

Selected DOE officials and contractors pushing the Yucca Mountain Project have received copies of the draft and have been asked for their comments for the final version of the overview. The attached two-page note says the overview ''makes a convincing case that Yucca Mountain is a technically suitable site for a repository ....''

The note suggests that the overview will provide the nuclear industry with more ammunition in its campaign to persuade Congress to make Yucca Mountain the site of the repository.

''The overview provides information that potential supporters can use in expressing support for a site recommendation,'' the note said.

Those words, Bryan said, trivialize years of technical work done at Yucca Mountain.

''That is in fact saying the public and the health and safety of Nevada be damned,'' he said.

Bob Loux, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, described the draft overview as a ''slick sales brochure'' aimed at convincing the public everything is fine at Yucca Mountain.

''The Department of Energy never surprises me,'' Reid said. ''They can't get out of bed with the nuclear power industry, and this is another example.''

Reid said he planned to bring Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials, who ultimately will decide whether Yucca Mountain is a suitable site, before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to make sure they understand his concerns. The committee has jurisdiction over the national nuclear waste plan.

The final decision on Yucca Mountain rests with the next president, Itkin said.

The Energy Department overview says the price tag for the Yucca Mountain dump has soared to $58 billion, well above the previous $36 billion estimate. But it says the repository could be ready to accept its first nuclear waste shipment in 2010.

The note says the overview presents Yucca Mountain as the ''key component in the DOE's proposed solution'' to the country's nuclear waste problem.

''The technical suitability of the site is less of a concern to Congress than the broader issue of whether the nuclear waste problem can be solved at an affordable price in both financial and political terms.''

The report says the 15-year Yucca Mountain study, now being completed, ''concludes that a repository that is likely to meet the safety standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the licensing requirements of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can be designed, constructed and operated at the Yucca Mountain site.''


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