EPA Holds Hearing on

Nuclear Waste Storage

A coalition of public health and environmental groups said yesterday that the Bush administration's proposed radiation standards for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site are inadequate to protect people living nearby.

The Environmental Protection Agency is holding a hearing today on its draft regulation, which would limit radiation exposure from the site to 15 millirems a year for 10,000 years. After that the limit would rise to 350 millirems a year for up to 1 million years.

"This is being transparently done to promote a very poor site . . . in order to accommodate the industry," said Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear physicist and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, who opposes the project. He said the proposed rule, "by a magical coincidence," matches the level of exposure industry officials have predicted for the Yucca nuclear repository.

The 350 millirem level would be 14 times higher than the total exposure the EPA now allows from a single nuclear facility. A regular chest X-ray amounts to 10 millirems.

EPA spokesman John Millett said the rule is not yet finalized because the comment period lasts until Nov. 21. Today's hearing is the fifth in a series.

"It's a draft rule at this point, but again, the rationale for the 350 additional millirems from 10,000 years and beyond deals with the amount of uncertainty that we're faced with in projecting out 10,000 years, in addition to being equivalent to radiation levels commonly experienced in other parts of the mountain west," Millett said.

Federal officials have been trying for several years to establish the Yucca waste site, which would store 7,000 tons of highly radioactive waste from commercial and military operations 90 miles away from Las Vegas. They hope to open the dump after 2012.

More Aid for Utility Bills

Sought by Democrats

Democratic lawmakers are urging the Bush administration to increase funding for a $2 billion energy program to help the poor pay heating bills, expected to increase about 47 percent this winter.

The energy assistance program helps low-income families, primarily the elderly and disabled, pay utility bills -- about one-third of the total bill, on average. The money is disbursed through block grants to the states.

Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman said last week that additional money was "not on the agenda." However, department spokesman Craig Stevens said yesterday, "I think it's an option on the table."

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), says the program's impact is diminishing because funding has not kept up with rising fuel prices.

Last week Kerry unsuccessfully tried to attach an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that called for increasing funding to $5.1 billion.

"It is critical . . . to avoid a looming but absolutely preventable crisis for millions of American families," Kerry said.

Stephen Nocilla, director of Catholic Social Services in Scranton, Pa., said he is worried about the impact of higher energy prices on poor families in northeast Pennsylvania. He is making plans with local officials to open more emergency shelters this winter.

"This is a life-and-death situation," Nocilla said. "People are going to have to make some very difficult choices."

-- From Staff Reports

and News Services