- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

The General Accounting Office yesterday cast doubt on whether the Yucca Mountain site Congress is considering to store the nation's nuclear wastes could be ready under the schedule lawmakers demand.

The Energy Department plans to begin shipments of 70,000 tons of highly radioactive material to the underground storage site in the Nevada desert by 2010, the date set by Congress.

However, GAO testimony during a Senate hearing yesterday revealed that uncertainties about funding, technical information and storage capacity at Yucca Mountain mean the site probably would not qualify for a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license anytime soon. The GAO blamed the Energy Department for failing to follow proper procedures for keeping the project on schedule.

"A key factor in the future licensing and construction of a repository is whether [the Energy Department] will be able to obtain the increases in annual funding that would be required to open the repository by 2010," said written testimony submitted by Gary Jones, the GAO's director of natural resources and environment.

"Because of the uncertainty of meeting the 2010 goal, [the Energy Department] is exploring alternative approaches, such as developing surface facilities for storing waste at the site until sufficient underground disposal facilities can be constructed," the testimony said.

Miss Jones testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

In its rush to recommend a site for nuclear waste disposal, the Energy Department failed to collect the technical data to assess the risk of radioactive leaks, the GAO said. In addition, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham acknowledged May 15 that Yucca Mountain might lack the capacity to safely store all of the nation's nuclear waste.

The Energy Department originally planned to apply for a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license in 2003. Lingering uncertainties will push back the date to at least 2006, the GAO said. Only then can construction begin.

The GAO says the site probably would not be ready to accept nuclear waste shipments until 2014 or 2015.

The GAO the investigative arm of Congress studied potential delays at the request of Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who opposes the nuclear waste storage plans.

"The DOE is not using good science and yet they're still going forward with this project," said Tessa Hafen, spokeswoman for Mr. Reid. "It's time for DOE bureaucrats to stop suppressing science at the expense of the health and safety of Nevadans and all Americans."

Mr. Reid's objections were disputed by many Republican congressmen.

"The DOE has done extensive testing at Yucca Mountain," said Samantha Jordan, spokeswoman for Rep. Joe L. Barton, Texas Republican, and a leading supporter of nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain. "By the time we begin using Yucca Mountain as a site, the science will be more than proven as acceptable for the site."

An Energy Department map of proposed shipment routes includes 312 rail shipments along CSX Corp. tracks near Washington's L'Enfant Plaza, only blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The estimate is based on an average of 175 shipments to the Nevada site annually over 24 years from 43 states.

However, Robert Halstead, a nuclear energy consultant for the state of Nevada, testified at the Senate hearing this week that 175 shipments per year was an unrealistically low estimate. The actual number needed was closer to 450 per year, he said.

The lower figure assumed the shipments could be made in bulk quantities by rail. However, many nuclear power plants lack rail connections, which means their wastes must be shipped by truck in smaller quantities along major highways, he said.

The hearings this week are leading up to a vote on the issue in the Senate, which would be the last vote needed.

The Bush administration already approved the shipments and storage in Nevada.

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