Vol. 2,  No. 20          August 15, 2005

Nevada's Online State News Journal

 

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Top News Story:
State Officials Condemn EPA Ruling; Congressional Delegation Demands Hearings
Those Who Follow May Face Radioactive Poisons In Their Water, In Their Air, In Their Ground
by Johnny Gunn

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in an apparent snub of the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. and of the wishes of Nevada's elected leaders, has concocted a set of regulations that, according to Governor Kenny Guinn, "is junk science at its worst."

Following a lawsuit pursued by Attorney General Brian Sandoval, the Circuit Court of Appeals told the EPA their 10,000 year standard for radiation release at the proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository was not good enough. The court proposed a time duration for the casks of high level nuclear waste to be secure for 250,000 years. The court ordered EPA to revise its standards based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences, which said if there was leakage after 10,000 years, the leakage would most likely occur at the time of maximum radioactivity releases.

The EPA released what they consider a response to the court's order, but according to Sandoval, "It's an obscenely lax and dangerous new standard." EPA standards are the primary benchmark used to determine the repository's safety. The standards set the maximum permissible radiation dose to humans living near the dump. The previous standard had been 15 millirems, a level deemed safe by scientists. EPA determined that standard only had to be met for 10,000 years and the court found that in fault. After that time, EPA says, as much as 350 millirems will be the standard.

Rem: a dosage of any ionizing radiation that will produce a biological effect approximately equal to that produced by one roentgen of X-ray or gamma-ray radiation.

Millirem: One thousandth of a Rem.

Roentgen: a unit of exposure used in measuring ionizing radiation, as X-rays or gamma-rays equal to the quantity of radiation that will produce 1 cubic centimeter of dry air (at normal temperature and air pressure) ions carrying one electrostatic unit of electricity of either sign.

EPA spokesman John Millett says the new standards will protect public health for one million years, but reading the above, this simply isn't true. If 15 millirems is considered the high end of the safety scale, how could 350 millirems also be considered safe? Jeffrey Holmstead, Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation at EPA said, "EPA met this challenge by using the best available scientific approaches and has issued a standard that will protect public health for one million years." The National Academy of Sciences strongly disagrees.

In European and Asian countries that store high level nuclear waste at the site of the energy plants, most have maximum radiation levels of 25 millirems during the times of peak radiation threat, that is after 100,000 years.

An organization called the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) has issued several statements that contradict the proposed EPA rules. IEER President Dr. Arjun Makhijani said, "The EPA now has the dubious distinction of proposing a standard that would be the worst in the western world." Makhijani went on to say, "No western programs explicitly allows as large as 350 millirems per year at the time of maximum radioactive release.

The standards offered by EPA only seem to address air quality issues. The primary problem is water seepage in the storage tunnels and how well the casks filled with the waste can stand up to the water migration. There have been serious questions raised about how the science of cask integrity is being determined, and how quality control is possibly being manipulated by some scientists. Congressional hearings are underway at this time regarding the questions. DOE and EPA have been slow to respond to questions posed by Congress.

Most historians agree that human civilizations have been on earth for around that same 10,000 year period, that is from about the time of Mesopotamia, so how well concrete and steel can withstand 10,000 years of water migration, earth movement, and the effects of high level nuclear radiation are guesses at best. What isn't a guess is how long it takes nuclear material to become relatively safe. According to the National Academy of Sciences, about 250,000 years from now, that waste will still be extremely dangerous.

The new standards suggested by the EPA include the current 15 millirems level for the first 10,000 years. But in a move seen only designed to placate the Department of Energy (DOE) in their quest to license the Yucca facility, EPA wants to permit at least 350 millirems for the next 200,000 years. Scientists have generally agreed that the casks that will be manufactured will probably stand up to water and other dangers for the first 10,000 years. It's after that, they say, that the danger of leakage will be the greatest and the level of toxicity highest.

According to a press release from Guinn and Sandoval, "The EPA's dangerous proposal is three-and-a-half times more lenient than even the nuclear industry had recommended in a formal report last spring." The two go on to say, "It is by far the most lenient radiation protection standard proposed for any nuclear waste disposal project in the world." The proposed limit of 350 millirems is about 23 times more than current EPA levels of safety.

In the meantime, U.S. Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and John Ensign (R-NV) have issued a joint request to EPA to hold long and meaningful hearings in Las Vegas, Reno, and the Amargosa Valley, nearest community to Yucca Mountain. Reid and Ensign also say they would like to see EPA Administrator, Stephen Johnson be at the hearings, "so that you can hear and see the depth of Nevadans' opposition to a weak radiation standard that does not meet the National Academy of Sciences guidelines.

The Senators, speaking from Washington said, "The comment period for this proposal must be no less than 180 days." EPA's press release says the agency wants just 60 days for the hearings, and they don't indicate where the hearings are to take place. Senator Reid and Ensign said that the public should receive at least 60 days notice before the date of the hearing and they call for EPA to accept video and written testimony from those that cannot attend the hearings.

Reid and Ensign say "The EPA is tasked with setting the limit on how much total radiation the public can be exposed to." Therefore, they say, the standards "must be based on the time the public would be exposed to the peak level of radiation." As discussed above, that would be following the so-called 10,000-year safe period, and for at least another 240,000 years.

Both Governor Guinn and Attorney General Sandoval state that the most important problem to be addressed is the groundwater contamination if one or more of the thousands of casks filled with the nuclear waste should fail. Failure, according to the National Academy of Sciences is expected at some point after 10,000 years. Sandoval and Guinn say, "It (the EPA's new standards) completely abandons any separate groundwater protection standard during the time of expected leakage from the repository." Most scientists, including those working for the EPA agree that groundwater contamination would represent as much as 80 percent of any total radiation dose to humans from the Yucca Mountain Repository.

Although no one can say whether there will life in the Las Vegas Valley 200,000 years from now, it is known today that the underground aquifer that feeds that valley extends under the proposed Yucca Mountain Repository, thus any leak would be a serious threat of radiation contamination. As pointed out by Guinn and Sandoval, the EPA standards that are being proposed do not address the threat of water contamination.

Governor Guinn said, "I can't imagine how they could have done anything to make themselves more vulnerable in the court of law as well as the court of science."

There is a strong moral implication in this fight over standards. It is being assumed that there will be human habitation in the area we know as southern Nevada 250,000 years from now, and the question must be asked, is it our responsibility to attempt to keep them from being poisoned because of our lack of foresight? Humans often don't respond to being responsible even to those that might be living 100 years from now (think global warming), so why be so picky about 10,000 years or 250,000 years? If there are people living in the area 250,000 years from now, will they even know of the potential disaster? Look how long the pyramids existed before the language of ancient Egyptians could be deciphered.

Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons hit the nail on the head when he said, "The EPA should not speculate that a standard, which is not deemed safe today could miraculously become a safe standard in the future." He said, "The standard released by the EPA today is arbitrary and grossly misguided. EPA has an obligation to protect public safety today, tomorrow, and in a million years."

The soundness of the project must be based on science, good, honest science. Science alone should dictate the standards for air and water safety. The standards released by the EPA are designed to allow DOE to proceed with their licensing procedure, not an epitome of good science. Whether or not the standards will meet the levels looked for by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will surely be the next step in this long and rocky road.