Nuclear Waste

Nevada's Bob Loux calls DOE "virtually incompetent" regarding Yucca Mountain

With the House and Senate both addressing the issue of a nuclear waste repository, the Department of Energy is facing major opposition from the state of Nevada regarding Yucca Mountain. During today's OnPoint Bob Loux, director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Projects Office talks about why Nevada will not, under any circumstances, accept a repository. Loux also discusses the safety issues and health risks associated with a nuclear repository.


Mary O'Driscoll: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Mary O'Driscoll. Our guest today is Bob Loux, director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Projects Office. Welcome to the show Bob.

Bob Loux: Thank you Mary. It's good to be here.

Mary O'Driscoll: Good. You represent the state of Nevada in the debate over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which of course the state of Nevada opposes and has opposed for many years. A lot of people would like to see this 20 year long debate though, they'd like to see it, this fight, just kind of get over with. They're looking at, Congress is already designated Yucca Mountain as the site where repository is going to be. DOE has been studying the site for years and people are saying, you know, enough already. Nevada's opposition, you're throwing up legal roadblocks, funding roadblocks, regulatory roadblocks. It's keeping the nuclear industry from being able to build new nuclear power plants because they need a place to put the waste before they can build the plants. How do you respond to this kind of thing?

Bob Loux: Well, I would respond by saying that I don't think Nevada is doing anything any other state wouldn't be doing in a similar situation. The real fundamental problem with the whole program is that you have a bad site. It won't do what they want it to. It will leak. It will contaminate Nevada's groundwater, you couple that with an agency that's virtually incompetent. The Department of Energy has never built a facility that's contained radioactive materials anywhere in the country. According to GAO they own and operate 127 facilities that handle these materials, 124 have completely failed and the other three have partially failed. So there's no confidence and no trust whatsoever in DOE. And the fact that they're promoting a scientifically defective site only adds to that skepticism.

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, how can it be scientifically deceptive if they've been studying it for 20 years? How long does it take for them to determine whether the site is good or bad? I mean this has been a pretty long process.

Bob Loux: Well, they certainly could have determined it in about 1992 when they first discovered that water moves through it much faster than they thought. And previous statements by DOE said if water moves that fast at a site, we don't have a site. Since then it has been more or less a case of momentum. It's not about whether the site meets scientific standards; it's about how we can maybe engineer it to work. So it's clearly past the threshold of setting safety standards and finding the site that meets that. We're now saying, well, this is the site, and we're going to alter any health and safety standard we need to to get this thing on. The idea from the Department of Energy is that all things nuclear, and nuclear waste included, is totally, inherently safe, so all of these health and safety regulations, in their mind, are not needed. They're an obstruction, in their mind. But in this country we developed health and safety regulations to protect a certain level of public health, and Yucca Mountain won't fit that need.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. At a hearing shortly before the August recess, a Senate hearing, Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, said, from the dais, told you flat out that you have no credibility before the committee because you represent the state of Nevada that just flat out opposes the repository. And your job is to kill the repository period. How do you respond to that? And what does that tell you about the state of the debate on Yucca Mountain?

Bob Loux: Well, it tells me that it's still very much contentious, as we all know. If I was the only one in the room getting paid to have a specific view about Yucca Mountain, and we're going to eliminate everyone else who had the same, I mean the hearing wouldn't, everybody in that room is paid to have a specific agenda. And I don't think promoting Yucca Mountain is any different than opposing it. And so I would question the credibility, according to Mr. Craig's standard, of everybody else who's in there. The problem is that it really shows his lack of understanding and his lack of diplomacy to sort of lash out at someone like myself and single me out after he asked me the question, which I responded to. So I would match my credibility against Senator Craig's any day of the week.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. DOE and Senator Domenici are working on legislation, coming back to work this month and working on legislation that will jumpstart the Yucca Mountain process, to speed it up, to try to get things moving, streamline the process. DOE says it needs this legislation in order to get the repository licensed. What's Nevada's view of the legislation?

Bob Loux: Well, in our view there's nothing in the legislation that in fact promotes or helps DOE file a high-quality license application with the NRC. DOE seems to believe the problems with the program are all external to them. For example, they want to be able to have the Secretary of Energy exempt Yucca Mountain shipments from any transportation regulation by anybody, Federal Government or the states. So clearly, that tells you a lot about the project. If it requires these extraordinary measures, wiping off transportation regulations, DOE being allowed to deposit hundreds of millions of pounds of heavy metals that would never be allowed to be used in land disposal anywhere else, if that's what it takes to get Yucca Mountain going, then that tells you everything you need to know about the poor quality of the site and the incompetency of department. The fact is that all these problems are occurring of the department's own making. A case in point, their failure to actually correctly certify their record before the NRC is a prerequisite to filing a license application. And they screwed that up, not the state of Nevada, not the NRC or anybody else. So very little in this bill does anything for getting a high-quality license application submitted to the NRC. In fact, nothing does.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. Well, a lot of people say that this is just a NIMBY situation. That Nevada otherwise enjoys the federal largess. You're getting the money. You're getting the jobs at the site and that you're enjoying that, but yet you're still fighting the repository itself. What is your response to that?

Bob Loux: Well, first of all, there's not any jobs at the site that actually mean anything to Clark County economy where Yucca Mountain, Las Vegas is located, adjacent to Yucca Mountain. If creating 3000 to 5,000 new jobs a month, so the idea that we have 200 or 300 people or even a thousand people working out there is not even a blip on the screen. So it's not like there's some big economic benefit. And then the money we get is to oversee and evaluate the program and tell people our view of it, and that's what the law requires and that's what we perform under, so none of these things are "benefits" per se. Nevada would love to see this project go away. I'm sure any other state in the same position would like it to go away and not be in their state as well. They're frustrated with, I think, our effectiveness in opposing this site, our ability to challenge them on health and safety issues, and they're very upset with that. And I can understand the frustrations of people like Senator Craig, who, once again, believes all nuclear things are safe. We really don't need any health and safety regulations. Just go build it. Ignore NEPA and the environmental laws, none of that stuff matters. And when you raise those issues about, wait a second, we have laws. Well, then we're obstructionists. We're just trying to get the government to follow the law.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. Now there's a defense angle to this as well, because the site itself is in a little tiny corner of the Nevada test site and it involves the Nellis base, the big Air Force training range that they have out there. And that there has been some concern that building Yucca Mountain and taking the land away would affect training there at Nellis. But that now DOE says it's a very small portion. We're only going to affect four cubic miles, I guess, four miles of air space. It's going to be a very small piece. What is actually the concern out there?

Bob Loux: Well, when we talked to the Air Force people at the Nellis Air Force Range, they believe restricting air access to the gunnery range, by restricting the airspace over Yucca Mountain, would be very inhibiting to their mission. The Secretary of Air Force has written previously to the Congress and saying anything that interferes in any way with our mission, they would be opposed to. So it's not about the number of acreage, what it is about is right over Yucca Mountain has been the entrance and the exit for all these fighter jets, with live ordinance, coming in and out of this gunnery range. And also the Air Force tells us that the new fighters coming online, the F-22s, require even more space. And that the southern southwestern corner of the gunnery range, which is where we're talking about, where Yucca Mountain is, is one of the critical components of areas that they need to have to be able to do their training. So I think there's a conflict coming. The Air Force tells us there is no understanding or agreement with DOE. They will not sign off on any flight restrictions over that area, like a no-fly zone. In contrary to the remarks by the DOE people, there is not in agreement and I don't think there will be.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. Now this all kind of ignores the crucial fact about transportation of waste to the site. I guess it's supposed to be rail, yet there's no spur that actually gets to the site itself, and this is a bone of contention with the state of Nevada as well. What can you tell me about that?

Bob Loux: Well, first of all, we're in litigation with them over the selection of the so-called Caliente route, which is a 319 mile proposed route right through the heart of central Nevada to get waste to Yucca Mountain from the eastern side of the state. Now we repeatedly told them this is probably the most difficult, the most expensive route they could pick. They even now agree that the route, the cost of this would be over $2 billion. There are several big mountain ranges to go over. And we don't think that an adequate comparison has been done to other, more reasonable alternatives for getting waste to Yucca Mountain, assuming that it even happens. So we're concerned with the selection of the Caliente route. We think that it is inappropriate and, moreover, we believe that the wrong agency is in charge. Under federal law this EIS and this selection of these routes should be done by the Surface Transportation Board that has exclusive jurisdiction over new rail construction in this country and not DOE. Since the Nuclear Waste Policy Act says that the transportation regulations and authorities of any other entities, including the Surface Transportation Board or even the state of Nevada shall not be compromised by this program. DOE will follow the rules. Yet they're turning around, in this legislation, and saying we should be exempt from all transportation regulations. We should be self-governing. And if DOE had a good track record in handling these materials, once again, people might be willing to believe that. But the fact that they don't only reinforces more that we need the regulations on the books.

Mary O'Driscoll: Is there any circumstance under which the state of Nevada would accept a repository within its borders?

Bob Loux: No, in a word.

Mary O'Driscoll: Even if it can be proven safe?

Bob Loux: No, in a word. We believe it would be very harmful to our gaming economy. There are lots of studies out there by the gaming industry, as well by the state, that indicates that even if it was operating exactly as planned with no leaks, no accidents, perfectly, that we'd still see between a ten and twenty percent drop-off in gaming because people just don't want to visit places where they have these ongoing nuclear activities, in particular nuclear waste.

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, if you're talking about nuclear activities doesn't that mean the Nevada test site would be a problem?

Bob Loux: Well, because those activities are no longer going on and I think there's a vast difference sort of between some of the other activities going on out there and some proposed for Yucca Mountain. Some of it has been in place for so long that it's almost been institutionalized. Yet a new nuclear facility in Nevada, at least according to most of the work we've done and the industry has done, would be very harmful to tourism, gaming, business relocation, retirement, all of those things. In fact, Clark County itself, the county adjacent to Yucca Mountain, sees a $3 billion a year negative impact to their economy simply from Yucca Mountain going forward.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. We'll have to end on that note. I'd like to thank Bob Loux of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Projects Office for joining us today, and thank you for joining us. I'm Mary O'Driscoll. See you next time on OnPoint.

[End of Audio]



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