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COLUMN

Don’t Blindly Trust the DOE

Brice Smith

Time is running out. In May the House voted to override Nevada’s veto of the Yucca Mountain high level nuclear waste repository. The Senate is expected to vote within the next few weeks. If they override the veto, then the Department of Energy will be free to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license which, if granted, will give the go ahead to eventually ship up to 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel through as many as 44 states to Yucca Mountain, where it will supposedly remain secure for the next 10,000 years. (You might ask yourself how the words “Danger. Keep Out!” will be written in the year 12,000 AD, but I digress). Much has been said about this issue, and untangling the arguments is no simple task given the enormous uncertainties inherent in all such long time-scale predictions.

As scientists we are trained to question every assumption within an analysis. Inherent in that examination must also be a questioning of who is conducting the research, what their track record is, and what potential conflicts of interest they might have. When dealing with a decision that could potentially destroy the lives of millions of people and impact the environment for hundreds of thousands of years, these questions become all the more important.

One does not have to look very hard to realize that the DOE has one of the worst environmental and safety records in the world. The Environmental Protection Agency even once barred its employees from visiting a uranium processing facility because of the high risk of exposure to radioactivity. The DOE acknowledges 155 instances of serious contamination spread across all 16 of its weapons facilities. Many of these leaks have threatened the public water supply. The most heavily polluted site is at Hanford, Wash., but the most dangerous is Rocky Flats given that it is only 16 miles from Denver. The General Accounting Office found a pervasive attitude of laxness towards safety at this site (including faulty radiation monitors and fire alarms). During its operation, Rocky Flats suffered hundreds of small fires and two major fires started by the spontaneous ignition of plutonium. As a result, the DOE had to buy $9 million worth of land that had been dangerously contaminated and the 40 acre reservoir feeding Broomfield, Colorado was blanketed by plutonium, requiring drinking water to be trucked in each week. In 1989 Rockwell, which ran the plant for the DOE, sued the government, claiming that the DOE knew the plant could not be operated in compliance with environmental laws, but insisted that Rockwell keep it running. After an investigation, the FBI charged that senior executives at the DOE knew of the dangers, but lied to conceal the violations. Eventually Rockwell shut down the plant and was hit with an $18.5 million criminal fine, but they had received $27 million in bonuses from the DOE during just their last three years of operation.

Compounding their ineptitude and carelessness, the DOE, and its predecessors, intentionally exposed tens of thousands of unsuspecting and uninformed Americans to radiation, including the release of radioactive iodine at Hanford in 1949 which contaminated the surrounding communities. To this day the true scale and consequences of these experiments are unknown. Finally, the DOE’s traditional role as an advocate for the nuclear industry presents a significant conflict of interest, which is compounded by the fact that they are facing a multi-billion dollar court ordered fine for not opening the repository in 1998 as planned. One of the major issues in determining the damages is the schedule under which the DOE will begin accepting the spent fuel, thus adding further pressure to find a quick solution no matter what the concerns.

If you are putting your faith in regulation to mitigate all this, then even a tertiary examination of the NRC will reveal that it is often little more than an industry spokesperson with a rubber stamp. Time and again the senior management at the NRC has overruled its own investigators and scuttled inquires. For example, NRC managers interfered with a criminal investigation of industry officials who had knowingly lied about the readiness of the Watts Bar reactor, other mangers cut short an investigation of an accidental chain reaction at the Fermi 2 reactor which was still applying for a license, and a panel in D.C. overrode the findings of investigators in California who questioned the safety of the troubled Diablo Canyon plant. This last incident, combined with many others, prompted a senior NRC engineer to resign in protest and a House subcommittee to find that the NRC had probably violated federal law during its deliberations. To make matters worse, the NRC is allowing plant owners to further increase risks by cutting back on inspections of critical safety equipment. As for Yucca itself, the NRC raised 293 serious questions about its suitability and despite having received responses to less than 50 of these, it ruled that enough information is available for a license application.

If you are putting your faith in regulation to mitigate all this, then even a tertiary examination of the NRC will reveal that it is often little more than an industry spokesperson with a rubber stamp. Time and again the senior management at the NRC has overruled its own investigators and scuttled inquires. For example, NRC managers interfered with a criminal investigation of industry officials who had knowingly lied about the readiness of the Watts Bar reactor, other managers cut short an investigation of an accidental chain reaction at the Fermi 2 reactor which was still applying for a license, and a panel in Washington, D.C. overrode the findings of investigators in California who questioned the safety of the troubled Diablo Canyon plant. This last incident, combined with many others, prompted a senior NRC engineer to resign in protest and a House subcommittee to find that the NRC had probably violated federal law while considering the ability of the reactor to withstand an earthquake. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, these reductions are approved based on the results of incomplete and inaccurate accident probability assessments. As for Yucca itself, the NRC raised 293 serious questions about its suitability and despite having received responses to less than 50 of these to date, it has ruled that enough information is available for a license application.

Neither of these organizations has earned the blind faith that so many currently have in them. Given the enormous risks of pushing Yucca Mountain through and greatly expanding the waste stored around the country by revitalizing a failing industry, it is unbelievable that so many seem willing to overlook the disastrous and often deceitful past of these agencies. Trust must be earned, and to the determent of us all, the DOE and the NRC have failed miserably in that task.