Scientist does hydrology experiment at Yucca Mountain underground laboratory

A federal appeals court has ruled against most of the state of Nevada's objections to a proposed underground nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. But the court did agree with Nevada and other critics of the site on one point--that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's requirement that protection against radiation releases at the site extend for 10,000 years is a violation of the 1992 Energy Policy Act. Nevada officials contend that part of the decision is enough to kill the project. At the least, it may lead to further litigation.

In 2001, the Dept. of Energy estimated the cost of the project to be $57.5 billion, including $4.5 billion for design and construction.

In its decision, handed down on July 9, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected arguments by Nevada and others parties that the congressional resolution that picked Yucca Mountain and actions related to approving that site by President Bush and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham were unconstitutional.

In the case, Nuclear Energy Institute Inc. v. Environmental Protection Agency, the court wrapped together four challenges brought by Nevada, Clark County, the city of Las Vegas, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups and the nuclear power industry trade association to various elements of the decision to put the facility under Yucca Mountain and requirements for the repository.

But the panel turned down all the objections, except the one referring to EPA's 10,000-year protection standard. The court said that benchmark "is not 'based upon and consistent with' the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences". In a 1995 report, according to the decision, the academy determined there was "no scientific basis for limiting the time period of the individual-risk standards to 10,000 years or any other value."


Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval said, "If we were to choose a case to win, the EPA case would be the one because it is fundamental to the basis for site selection, licensing, groundwater and other issues. Simply put, Yucca Mountain is stopped in its tracks because the court recognizes that the project isn't rooted in sound science. We wouldn't trade places with the opposition."

A spokesman for Sandoval, Tom Sargent, says that the appellate court decision "also opens up huge avenues...for future litigation if DOE continues on its present course."
DOE Secretary Abraham said he was pleased with the ruling. "Our scientific basis for the Yucca Mountain project is sound. The project will protect the public health and safety."

Nuclear Energy Institute Executive Vice President Angie Howard said that the court's determination on the 10,000-year standard "should not impede work at the repository." Abraham said that "DOE will be working with the EPA and Congress to determine appropriate steps to address this issue."

(Photo courtesy of Dept. of Energy)