Synthesis/Regeneration 9   (Winter 1996)

Nuclear Hot Spot: Capitol Hill

by Mary Olson, Nuclear Information and Resource Service

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act is being rewritten by the nuclear industry. The waste generators' goal is to transfer the possession and liability for their high-level radioactive waste to the taxpayers NOW, when there is no permanent management plan in place. The new law would put up a parking lot for high-level waste storage casks adjacent to the Yucca Mountain proposed below-ground nuclear dump, on Western Shoshone Lands, triggering expedited transport of deadly waste through 43 states. (States with no projected high-level transport routes: Alaska, Hawai'i, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Delaware, Rhode Island.) The State of Nevada has published a report showing projected routes.

Status: At the time of writing, the House bill, HR 1020 introduced by Rep. Upton of Michigan, is expected to go to a Floor vote in early 1996. The bill is expected to pass; we are hoping for enough votes to sustain a Presidential veto (one third of the House, or 145). Senate bill 1271 introduced by Craig of Idaho has the nuclear industry's backing, unlike Senate bill 167 authored by longtime nuclear industry advocate Johnston of Louisiana. Cosponsors are being recruited, but no Senate action is expected until 1996, when there may be only a mark-up and floor vote.

Goals: Make it impossible for the Senate to pass a nuclear waste bill this year or next, stop the nuclear utilities from building a so-called "private" waste dump on Mescalero Apache lands—or anywhere else; and achieve an Independent Review of radioactive waste policy and programs.

The radioactive waste dumps that we have are leaking. Those that are proposed are all fundamentally flawed and cannot deliver what must be our collective goal: isolation of radioactive waste from the biosphere for as long as it is hazardous.

For the past five years I have been working as a nuclear dumpfighter. The radioactive waste dumps that we have are leaking. Those that are proposed are all fundamentally flawed and cannot deliver what must be our collective goal: isolation of radioactive waste from the biosphere for as long as it is hazardous. For plutonium 239 which is made in reactors, isolation is needed for a quarter million years. In truth, there is no "solution" to the problem of nuclear waste. It cannot be neutralized with heat. Any scheme to use reactors to fission the material only guarantees ongoing release of radioactivity, and is futile anyway since fission produces elements that are radioactive for millions of years. The first goal must be to stop making more of this planetary poison.

Commercial nuclear power has produced 95% of the total radioactivity from all sources, to date. The Department of Energy (DOE) projects 85,000 metric tonnes from this "generation" of nuclear reactors. Irradiated fuel when removed from the reactor core is over a million times more radioactive than "fresh" uranium fuel. The waste includes plutonium; these reactors will produce over 2 million pounds of plutonium. Radioactive waste is body burden of the Earth.

During my years in this job it has been clear that communities have a lot of strength in saying "NO" to nuclear dumps. Though laws have passed mandating new dumps, not one has opened. When we organize and work together we can achieve major "wins" like preventing the DOE from pursuing the "voluntary" high-level waste dump siting program known as MRS (Monitored Retrievable Storage) after dozen of counties and tribes were targeted. Equally clear is that nuclear industry simply ratchets the stakes higher. Now we are in the midst of a fight in Congress where the nuclear utilities are shameless in their effort to rewrite the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) to their advantage and at the same time are pushing a "private" industry MRS on Mescalero Apache land within New Mexico, in case Congress doesn't bail them out.

When fully intact, the shield of the cask still leaks enough radiation to deliver an adult chest x-ray in an hour-with no lead shield over the gonads-to anyone who is within 2 meters...A truck cask stopped in traffic might give a substantial dose to a child in a car next to it.

This campaign is a world class corporate bail-out, perhaps one of the most significant in the history of the world. House bill 1020 and Senate bill 1271 would transfer the irradiated fuel left from commercial nuclear power generation from the utilities that make it, to the US taxpayer. We take title and assume the liability for 250 thousand years, or more—long beyond the existence of the US and perhaps the species—to as much radioactive waste as the utilities want to make. This very real sinkhole of current and future taxpayer resources has never been quantified, but clearly it will exceed the Nuclear Waste Fund that nuclear ratepayers have paid into with each electric bill.

The waste bail out is enshrined in current law, but under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the transfer of high-level nuclear waste to the taxpayer would only occur when a permanent site is ready. The nuclear utilities are tired of waiting. The claim is that DOE contracts name 1998 as the date for permanent disposal, and that these are binding. DOE's reading is that the contracts depend on having the facility to take the waste. The utilities are on Capitol Hill now to rewrite the rules (again) to ensure the continued operation of their reactors, and thus the continued production of more radioactive waste. About 85,000 metric tonnes of irradiated fuel are projected from the existing reactors by the end of their licensed period. Only 30,000 metric tonnes, or about 35% of this projected total exists today.

The utilities' new scheme is simple: put up a parking lot far away from the reactors, out of the reactor site and out of ratepayer sight, and out of mind. Described as "centralized interim storage," the dump would be a surface facility—literally a cement pad on which dry transport/storage casks would sit. The target: the part of the Nevada Test Site that is immediately adjacent to Yucca Mountain. Current law selected Yucca Mountain as the only site to be studied for a geologic repository for radioactive waste. Three quarters of the nuclear power reactors are east of the Mississippi River. The distance to Nevada guarantees that once shipping of waste begins, it will be continuous for 3 decades or more.

The distance to Nevada guarantees that once shipping of waste begins, it will be continuous for 3 decades or more... On Capitol Hill, the common term for high-level waste legislation is "Screw Nevada."

The new proposal is identical to dry cask storage at reactor sites, only a whole lot more waste, and no capacity to handle the waste if there is a problem with a cask (reactors have fuel pools). There will also be millions of transport miles through 43 states affecting three-quarters of the US population. In the first year, as much civilian high-level waste will move as has ever moved.

The whole concept of centralization is flawed. Operating reactors will still continue to produce high-level nuclear waste that will have to be cooled on site in a pool for 5 to 10 years before it can be loaded into a transport cask. There will be 109 reactor sites which will continue to be a high-level nuclear waste sites. But instead of 109 sites, there will actually be 110, plus each transport cask en route. The large rail cask will carry 200 times more cesium and other persistent radioactive elements than were released by the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Centralization of high-level nuclear waste storage merely accommodates the production of more, while transferring the liability to the citizens.

The choice of Yucca Mountain has been politically driven from the very beginning. On Capitol Hill, the common term for high-level waste legislation is "Screw Nevada." Yucca Mountain should already have been rejected as a repository site. In the 1980's it was known that the fractured rock of the Mountain would be unable to isolate radioactive waste from the environment. Ongoing seismic activity at Yucca Mountain earns it the same level of seismic risk as the San Francisco Bay area. In a 1992 backroom deal, Senator Bennett Johnston (D-LA), waived Yucca Mountain from having to meet EPA environmental protection standards for nuclear waste repositories. If science was the driver, the site would have been rejected, not the standards. Yucca is still only under study. Sending the waste to a "temporary" dump at Yucca Mountain will make it de facto the permanent site-above or below ground. Less likely, but possible, the waste would move a second time if a more credible permanent site is selected.

Congressional offices describe this as a "full court press" by nuclear industry lobbyists. To their credit, nuclear industry representatives have done an expert job of organizing (of course, they had the budget to do it). First they formed the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, pulling in state officials spearheaded by the Minnesota State Public Service Commisison and the Attorney General of Michigan. Both these states are host to utilities that met with stiff citizen opposition to dry cask storage of high-level waste on the reactor sites at Prairie Island in the Mississippi River and at Palisades on Lake Michigan. The bottom line of the citizen challenge is "stop making more." The utilities have perverted that message to "get rid of it," sued DOE, and introduced legislation. The authorship of HR 1020 is openly attributed to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the public relations and lobby arm of the nuclear utilities. Nuclear industry lobbyists have pulled in 189 cosponsors to HR 1020 including unlikely supporters like leading members of the House Congressional Black Caucus like Towns, Rush and Conyers.

What most of these cosponsors have failed to recognize is that this is not a special interest bill. In fact, the vast majority of co-sponsor districts will be directly affected by the transport of this deadly waste. HR 1020 may never be an issue in their district while it moves through Congress, but once high-level casks start moving through the distrct, people are not going to be happy to learn who voted to bring this lethal material in. This is where the "rubber meets the road" literally. Communities are not going to be ready.

The proposals on The Hill contain money for training and preparation, but only subject to the annual appropriations process, which means they compete with everything else in the DOE budget. Irradiated fuel will deliver a lethal exposure if unshielded in less than three minutes, to anyone within 2 meters. When fully intact, the shield of the cask still leaks enough radiation to deliver an adult chest x-ray in an hour—with no lead shield over the gonads—to anyone who is within 2 meters. This will affect workers and the public. A truck cask stopped in traffic might give a substantial dose to a child in a car next to it.

On legal grounds the site never should have been considered at all, being Western Shoshone Nation Treaty Land. The Western Shoshone Nation opposes both proposed nuclear dumps—surface and geologic. It is not clear why most people—in and out of government—have a hard time viewing the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley with the force of International Law, and therefore exerting precedence over the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). Perhaps this myopia is because we are so accustomed in the popular culture to burying the past. Perhaps it is because in this day and age we can't fathom the idea that we are still stealing land from the Indigenous Peoples. In any case, US citizens should view our government in violation of an international accord in pursuing this program. The Western Shoshone Nation Treaty Lands encompass much of the State of Nevada as well as parts of Utah, Idaho and California.

The rest of the story is that if we pull off a miracle, stopping this waste fiasco in Congress, the utilities still have an "ace in the hole." Northern States Power started negotiations with the Mescalero Apache Tribal Council and nuclear consultants immediately after the DOE MRS program went under. The new proposal at Mescalero is for a high-level nuclear waste "condo" where utilities buy into the interim storage "option" on Mescalero Apache land. This proposal is moving forward after overriding a vote of the Mescalero Apache People which rejected the dump. It is clearly an end-run around the authority of states, since nuclear waste seems to be the one and only place that federal agencies "recognize" tribal sovereignty.

Clearly the only move from here is to stop those radioactive waste trains and trucks where they start—both at the utility gate and on Capital Hill. We are calling for a true independent review, convened by non-waste generators, to begin to chart a course from here.

Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) is a national organization that works with citizens and citizen's groups nationwide concerned with commercial nuclear power and its radioactive waste. NIRS offers NIRSNET, a 24 hour on-line bulletin board (services include NRC and NIRS documents and a variety of forum conference areas, as well as mail between NIRSNET users), toll-free number: 800-764-6477.

We also have a Homepage on the World Wide Web:

NIRS, 1424 16th St. NW Suite 601, Washington, DC 20036 (202) 328-0002, fax: (202) 462-2183. NIRS is a member of the Nuclear Waste Citizen's Coalition. For information on the Coalition contact Fred Millar (202) 547-5796. To obtain a copy of the Nevada Transportation Route Report, contact the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force (702)248-1127.

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