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Yucca nuclear site faces big hurdles, report says

Opening the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump is still hindered by engineering questions a year after allegations of fraud emerged, congressional investigators said Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Progress toward opening the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump is still hindered by questions about the quality of scientific and engineering work, a year after allegations of fraud emerged, congressional investigators said Thursday.

The Energy Department’s reorganization of the project has yet to put the problems to rest and may create new issues, said a report by the Government Accountability Office.

That could delay the Energy Department from applying to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to open the dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the report said. It’s not likely that the dump, approved by Congress in 2002 to store 77,000 tons of the nation’s most radioactive nuclear waste, could open before 2012.

“After more than 20 years of project work, DOE is again faced with substantial quality assurance and other challenges to submit a fully defensible license application to NRC,” said the report, requested by Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., who was releasing it Thursday at a press conference in Las Vegas.

Management turnover cited
Among the problems cited by the GAO was high turnover of project managers. Nine of 17 key management positions have turned over since 2001, the GAO said, and the director of quality assurance was among them.

The report also said that despite substantial time and money spent resolving quality assurance issues, the Energy Department has not developed effective management tools to detect and solve problems. The report recommended strengthening quality guidelines and analysis of problems.

Energy Department spokesman Craig Stevens said in a statement that the agency had either fixed these issues already, or was working on them.

“This department remains committed to following our obligation under the law to license, construct and operate Yucca Mountain as the nation’s permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel,” Stevens said.

Last October, DOE announced a “new path forward” to improve Yucca Mountain by, among other things, redesigning waste storage containers to minimize handling of nuclear waste and designating an outside national lab to oversee scientific work. The report said it is too soon to determine whether this new effort has resolved quality assurance issues enough to move toward submitting a license application.

The Energy Department’s inspector general is still conducting a criminal investigation into alleged document falsification by U.S. Geological Survey employees between 1998 and 2000. DOE is also still reviewing 14 million e-mails to see if they raise quality assurance concerns, and redoing the scientific work by the USGS hydrologists involved, who were studying the movement of water through the proposed dump site.

Over 50,000 tons of nuclear waste destined for the dump is now waiting at 72 sites around the country, mostly at commercial power plants.

Nevada sues
On Wednesday, Nevada sued the federal government, accusing it of withholding documents that show Yucca cannot safely hold the nation’s radioactive waste.

The complaint, filed in Reno, is the fourth federal lawsuit the state has pending against the plan.

The case seeks the release of a draft application prepared by contractors seeking a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to open the dump.

“The federal government is required by law to share its important Yucca information with the host state, and we are entitled to such information under the Freedom of Information Act as well,” Nevada Attorney General George Chanos said in a statement.

“What are they trying to hide?” he said. “If the repository is safe, you’d think they’d be anxious to prove it.”

An Energy Department spokesman said the application would be made public once it is formally submitted to the NRC.

Bob Loux, chief of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, said the state believes the document will show the dump cannot meet radiation safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.