MERCURY, Nev. - New evidence from an independent nuclear review board shows the metal containers meant to store spent nuclear fuel at an underground warehouse inside Yucca Mountain will corrode and leak radioactive material much earlier than previously suspected.
Based on a laboratory study attempting to duplicate conditions inside the mountain, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board found that heat from the Alloy 22 canisters will cause moisture in the air to react with dust and salts to form an acid that may eat away at the containers. Corrosion could occur within the first thousand years of storage resulting in the "perforation of the waste packages, with possible release of radionuclides."
To license Yucca Mountain as a repository the Energy Department must prove the casks can contain the radioactive materials from escaping into the environment for at least 10,000 years.
So in releasing its findings the board is challenging the DOE's plan to permanently transport and bury 77,000 tons of toxic waste in the Nevada desert. The Yucca Mountain site is located approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas on land some contend is still owned by the Western Shoshone under the Treaty of Ruby Valley.
"We strongly urge you to re-examine the current repository design and operation," the 10-member board wrote in a letter dated Oct. 21 addressed to Margaret Chu, director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.
A full report on the study is expected from the review board later this month. The board was created by Congress as an advisory panel to study the project and report their findings to lawmakers and the Energy Department.
The nuclear scientists who make up the board were studying the DOE's "hot storage" design. Under the proposal, canisters would be stored close together in the tunnel causing the rock to heat to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. A "cold" design would space the casks further apart and only reach a temperature of 180 degrees. The board suggested the DOE examine a cold design which other reports show would likely delay the decay of the containers.
Chu dismissed the latest study saying the review board's experiments were flawed and used "extreme and highly unlikely" factors in arriving at their finding. In a written response she said, "I do not agree that the data cited by the board supports such definitive conclusions."
Allen Benson, a DOE spokesman on the Yucca project, said the department is still on schedule with plans to seek licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by December 2004. The agency hopes to open the dump by 2010.
"We are studying the report and will review it in more detail, but everything is moving forward," Benson said without elaborating on the board's findings. "There are no setbacks at this time."
But Bob Loux, the director of Nevada's Nuclear Projects Agency, said the information only supports what they've been preaching all along - that Yucca Mountain is not a safe place to store radioactive waste.
"Our research mirrors those findings," Loux said. "No magic metal can fully contain the waste whether it's hot or cold" for that long a period of time. He said the reason the report is so important is because the Energy Department's case rests with the sturdiness of those canisters. "It's the linchpin of the whole project," Loux said.
Nevada has been fighting the project at every stop. The state has filed lawsuits against several federal agencies in an attempt to bring the project to a halt. Opening arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. are scheduled for Jan. 14.
Concerns have also been raised in Indian country. Back in August the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe and the Western Shoshone National Council hosted a forum to discuss the effect the nuclear dump would have on tribes - transportation of waste over tribal land being the main concern.
Over the life of the project it is estimated that nearly 109,000 truck shipments will arrive in Nevada for storage and depending on route selection officials say as many as 36 tribes could be affected by shipments either crossing over or near their reservations. Resistance from tribes, they say, could help re-route the shipments.
Meanwhile, a recent poll commissioned by the state shows 65 percent of Nevadans support fighting the nuclear dump, while 30 percent feel Yucca Mountain will go forward and that the state should negotiate with the federal government and at least benefit from the deal.
In a joint statement, U.S. Senator John Ensign, R-Nev. called for the abandonment of the Yucca Mountain project calling it "scientifically unsound" and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., added that the nuclear board's report just further proves the dangers associated with the repository.
"It appears to confirm that the project puts Nevadans at extreme risk, which is the very reason we've been fighting Yucca Mountain. The only thing that would keep nuclear waste from threatening Nevadans are these waste canisters. And now we find out that scientists can't even guarantee these canisters won't leak."