Environmental Protection Agency officials yesterday proposed new limits on radiation exposure for the next million years at a planned nuclear waste repository beneath Nevada's Yucca Mountain in an effort to overcome a court ruling that has threatened to block the project.
The new standard for radiation emanating from the buried waste through ground water or other sources could take effect as early as mid-October, after public comments. Yesterday's announcement is an important step in the protracted battle between the federal government and the state of Nevada and environmental groups over where to store as much as 77,000 tons of waste produced by the nation's nuclear reactors.
Bush administration officials, who have been pushing the controversial $58 billion project 90 miles from Las Vegas, are hoping to satisfy a year-old federal court ruling requiring them to set safety guidelines not just for the first 10,000 years after the plant is built but beyond. State officials and environmental groups charge that the current standard poses serious long-term health threats to residents of the small communities in the area.
Under the existing standard deemed inadequate by the court, people living near the desert site must be exposed to no more than an additional 15 millirems of radiation a year in the next 10,000 years as a result of radiation leaks from the buried waste. Thereafter, and for as long as 1 million years, the exposure limit would be set at 350 millirems per year under the plan announced yesterday. Annual radiation from natural sources averages about 300 millirems a year, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Jeffrey R. Holmstead, EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, said the proposed new standard would ensure that for the next million years area residents would be exposed to no more radiation than a typical urban dweller now experiences. Yet that radiation level is 3.5 times as much as the federal government allows for the cycle of activity related to a nuclear reactor, according to Energy Department officials.
"This is one of the most stringent radiation standards in the world," Holmstead told reporters in a telephone news conference. "We're setting a standard that not only protects our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but will protect for the next 25,000 generations."
Yesterday's proposal represents a calculated shift by the administration to try to salvage plans for establishing the nation's first central nuclear waste site. As recently as 2001, the EPA had rejected the idea of a two-tiered safety standard, but it decided to draft one to satisfy last year's U.S. District Court ruling here that stands in the way of the project, according to agency officials.
But public health and environmental advocates criticized the proposal, saying the most generous European nuclear waste storage standards are more than 10 times as strict. France sets its exposure level for radiation from waste sites at 25 millirems a year over the course of several hundreds of thousands of years.
Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear fusion scientist and president of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, said the new guidelines would "be the most lax standards for a repository in the world."
"I'm really shocked the EPA has proposed this," Makhijani said. "It's not a standard to protect public health. It's a standard to protect the industry's interest in Yucca Mountain."
Critics of the project and federal officials have been wrangling for more than two decades over whether to construct the huge nuclear waste dump in Nevada. President Bush, who pledged in his first presidential campaign to proceed with the project only if it was based on "sound science," approved it in early 2002. Nevada's governor utilized a provision of the federal law to veto the project, but Congress overrode that veto and authorized the project in the summer of 2002.
Energy Department officials said yesterday that they can meet the new safety standard. However, they must first apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license before construction can be completed. The agency is likely to formally submit its application early next year. The government had initially hoped to open the repository in 2010, but this target has slipped by a few years. Energy Department spokesman Craig Stevens said the agency is "just not working with dates anymore."
Nevada officials, who are still hoping to block the project in court, questioned why the government would establish a protective annual radiation level of 15 millirems and then set a different standard to take effect "seconds after midnight" after 10,000 years, in the words of lawyer Joseph Eagan.
"It's patently irrational," said Eagan, the lead attorney for Nevada in its fight to stop the project. "The uncertainty is in the performance of the repository, not in the health standard. We know what levels of radiation are harmful."
Energy Department officials have laid out elaborate plans for containing the commercial-reactor fuel and high-level defense waste they hope to deposit 1,000 feet beneath the base of Yucca Mountain. They say they will place the solid-fuel pellets in stainless steel tubes and will encase the tubes in containers coated with alloy 22, today's most corrosion-resistant metal covering.