The Environmental Protection Agency has set limits on how much radiation can be emitted from groundwater, air and soil at the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository site in Nevada. The Dept. of Energy, which is in charge of planning and building the facility, last month estimated its cost at $57.5 billion through 2019, up 26% from DOE's 1998 projection.

In the final standards, announced June 6, EPA made few changes from draft versions of the rule. The radiation exposure limits are 15 millirems annually "from all pathways"--that is, from any potential sources. EPA says that level is about twice the amount of radiation people would receive from residing in a brick house


EPA also set groundwater standards. The Yucca Mountain site, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is over an aquifer. EPA is requiring a groundwater level of 4 millirems per year, the amount set under the Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said the benchmarks are the first in the world dealing with long-term storage of spent fuel from nuclear power plants. "These are strong standards and they should be," Whitman said.

The agency made two changes from earlier drafts of the rule. It widened by one mile the "safety zone" from the area where closest residents live to the place where DOE must show it is meeting the EPA exposure limit. That zone will be 12 miles from the repository, up from 11 in an earlier version. EPA also is requiring DOE to analyze more groundwater to prove it is adhering to that standard.


Nevada's congressional delegation has fought the proposed repository. Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) commended Whitman for issuing the rule. But Reid, citing issues such as natural disasters and nuclear waste transportation, added that "far too many questions remain about the future of Yucca Mountain for anyone to declare that the site is safe or acceptable" to Nevadans.

DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham is to decide in several months whether to recommend to President Bush that Yucca Mountain is a safe site for the repository. If Bush then approves Yucca Mountain, it would be up to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to license the facility. The repository could begin to receive the waste in 2010.