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WASHINGTON -- Nevada officials will ask the federal courts
to block a decision on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site,
claiming the Energy Department has abandoned a congressional mandate
that the site's natural geology must protect the public from
Instead, the Nevada officials say, the latest design for the waste
burial ground, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, relies ``nearly 100
percent'' on engineered barriers to assure the waste's isolation.
The design amounts to ``a glorified waste package'' that could be
deemed scientifically suitable ``even if sited on the shores of Lake
Tahoe,'' Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, wrote Energy
Secretary Spencer Abraham.
The salvo is only the latest in the increasingly bitter
confrontation between Nevada officials and the Bush administration
over the proposed nuclear repository. It is supposed to hold
thousands of tons of used reactor fuel now kept at nuclear power
plants in 31 states. If given the go-ahead, it is scheduled to open
Early next year Abraham is expected to recommend to President Bush
that the site be approved, although department officials emphasized
that no decision has been made by Abraham so far.
Robert Loux, the Nevada governor's top adviser on the nuclear
waste site, said in an interview that Nevada will file a lawsuit
soon, and ask the court to block Abraham from making a
The Nevada lawsuit will argue that the Energy Department has
failed to follow the legal requirement that the waste site rely
almost exclusively on its natural geology to safeguard the waste,
including radioisotopes that will remain highly radioactive for more
than 10,000 years.
Instead, the state argues, the Energy Department is incorporating
numerous engineered barriers to counter shortcomings in the site's
``The notion that geological features must be the primary form of
containment is ... explicitly required'' by the 1982 law that is the
basis for developing a nuclear waste repository, Guinn wrote.
Energy Department officials dismissed the state's latest threat of
legal action and strongly defended the use of both geology and
``We're not relying specifically on engineered barriers to meet
the regulations. We are looking at the scientific evidence of both
the geological and engineered barriers together to determine the
site's suitability,'' said DOE spokesman Joe Davis.
``One doesn't outweigh the other. They both work hand in hand,''
said Davis. The department contends that Congress in 1992 cleared the
way for use of a ``total system performance'' approach to
safeguarding the waste.
But Loux said that Congress also envisioned that the site's
geology ``be the primary barrier'' to isolate the waste and that the
approach by the Energy Department ``does not even come close to being
in compliance the law.''
In recent years, the scientists and engineers working on the Yucca
Mountain project have incorporated more manmade protective devices.
For example, after concern was raised about the possible effect of
water moving through the rocks, stronger and more corrosion-resistant
canisters were added to the design. ``Drip shields'' were added to
keep water from hitting the waste once the containers begin to
disintegrate hundreds of years from now.
An alternative design spreads out the canisters to deal the impact
of high temperatures on surrounding rocks.
These improvements only add to the site's safeguards and do not
detract from the fact that ``the mountain performs pretty well'' in
protecting the waste, says Marvin Fertel, a vice president for the
Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade association.
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