Page 15


characterization of the three sites, including the drilling of deep exploratory shafts at each one, was expected to cost about $3 billion. Although the original Act called for the construction of two repositories one in an Eastern state and one in the West the department had all but eliminated its search for an Eastern dump site by June 1986. That decision did not particularly enamor the DOE to representatives of Western states still in the running. By last summer, support for an 18-month moratorium on all site selection work had rapidly gained ground in the House; it became obvious to many in Congress, especially those with an eye on the 1988 elections, that action needed to be taken, and quickly. “I think they were worried about it because the program seemed to be going nowhere but was still consuming money,” said Frishman, who until August directed the Texas Nuclear Waste Programs office, a branch of the Governor’s office. “I don’t think Congress itself would have been worried if we had not made them worried.” The decision to investigate the Nevada site at the exclusion of studies in Texas and Washington “makes no good technical sense,” Frishman said. Financially, he asserted, it is an “extremely risky” move to single out one site for the repository. “I think it was clear that Congress knew public confidence in the program was gone,” said Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Project for the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “The question became, ‘How do we fix it?’ ” Even DOE officials acknowledge the program was in need of some sort of redirection. “It appeared to me that a focus for the activities was necessary,” said Carl Gertz, project manager for the DOE’s Nevada Office. “Congress was not happy with the way things were going and they wanted to get it back on track and they took action to get it back on track.” BUT FOR MANY who have followed the department’s program since the beginning, nothing could be further from the truth. “They did it because it was easy,” said Sam White, a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., who monitored the issue in Congress for the Nuclear Waste Task Force. “It may make sense economically to characterize one site at a time,” White said, “but it doesn’t make a lot of sense technically, scientifically, or any other way.” The DOE, however, maintains that any of the three sites would likely have met Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards for licensing a repository. Problems with the program were not of a technical nature but rather the result of what had become a “political/institutional” issue, Gertz said. “The fact that [Congress] chose one of the three sites that had previously been recommended as being suitable indicated they still had confidence in the program,” he said. But Danny Smith, deputy director of the Texas Nuclear Waste Programs Office in Austin, said the decision to single out the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was simply “another case of political expediency.” YUCCA MOUNTAIN SITE I LAS VEGAS “I think the scientific basis of the program was compromised when Congress decided which of the three sites ought to be investigated” rather than basing the decision on technical data, Smith said. At one point during the last Congressional session, it appeared proponents of the moratorium concept, including Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona, one of the principal authors of the original Act, would have their way. With the growing support of officials in Texas, Washington, and Nevada, as well as several Indian tribes, Udall sponsored legislation in the House calling for an immediate halt to all work at the three sites while an independent commission reviewed DOE’s work to date. Under Udall’s plan, the review commission also would have developed recommendations to Congress on how to best manage the nation’s nuclear waste, including possible alternatives to deep geologic disposal. In the other chamber, Senators J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and James McClure of Idaho favored a radically different approach that would scrap plans for a second repository altogether, halt work at two of the three sites under consideration, and investigate one site at a time. In the process, Johnston reminded his colleagues, Congress could save the government several billion dollars. After several months of heated debate, including a series of key Congressional hearings at which DOE project managers from the Nevada, Washington, and Texas sites testified, supporters of the Senate approach finally won out. “It wasn’t so much that everybody necessarily supported Johnston and McClure,” said Hancock, who witnessed much of the debate, “but supporters of the commission/moratorium approach were put in the position politically where it became impossible to oppose” the Senate plan. THE REAL ISSUE, at least for now, is whether or not the Nevada site is technically suitable for the perma nent disposal of high-level nuclear waste. Officials in that state are busy developing strategies they hope will send DOE packing. “I think there are more indications that suggest it’s not suitable than there are indications that suggest it is,” said Loux of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project office. To support his view, Loux points to a paper recently published by a DOE scientist working in the department’s Nevada office. In his report, dated November 1987, Jerry S. Szymanski suggests that DOE hydrology models for the Yucca Mountain site may be seriously flawed and that tectonic and volcanic activity at the site could possibly lead to a flooding of the repository. Szymanski included in his paper alternative hydrology models which Loux and Frishman believe will render a more accurate assessment of the Yucca Mountain site. Szymanski also recommended that DOE conduct a series of tests to confirm which model of the groundwater system is accurate before full-scale studies of the site begin. If his theory is correct, Szymanski concludes, “Serious consideration should be given to abandoning the Yucca Mountain site and declaring it unsuitable” for the permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste. “We’re trying to get [DOE] to rethink their site characterization approach and come to some early conclusions about whether it’s worth spending billions of dollars on this site,” said Frishman. If nothing else, it is clear that the merits of the Yucca Mountain site will continue to be debated for the next several years, at least. But no one is sure what will happen next if the site is proven unsuitable. And, despite missing virtually every deadline it has faced, DOE officials are optimistic that they will meet the Act’s 1995 deadline for licensing a repository and will begin construction of the facility by 1998. Under that schedule, the repository would begin receiving waste by the year 2003. “Dream on,” Loux said of the department’s chances of meeting the schedule. “That’s not going to happen in the stretch of anybody’s imagination.” And, Loux added, this just may be DOE’s last chance. “I think this is the last time down the road for geologic disposal,” he said. “If this one fails, I think the whole concept will be thrown out.” The DOE’s Carl Gertz admitted that he has no idea what lawmakers would do if THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15