22 July 2010

Hanford and Yucca Mountain add heat to the Senate race

Elections are drawing near, and the competition is radioactive. Washington incumbent Patty Murray and challenger Dino Rossi are going head to head over nuclear waste - each focusing on proving that they support reopening Yucca Mountain more.

But beyond the political issue, we at HOANW see problems with reopening Yucca, the Nevada nuclear waste repository recently put on hold by the Obama administration.

Believe me, it's hard to even extend beyond the political issue. Obama supports Nevada senator and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for whom the closure of a nuclear repository within his state would be a big boost to his election campaign. Washington State politicians seem to be following an Anywhere-But-Hanford mindset, appealing to our citizens by saying "Not In Our Backyard" -- but they simultaneously ignore key facts that should influence this highly crucial process.

We have a predominant issue with Yucca Mountain: the U.S. Department of Energy would be permitted to dramatically lower health standards to levels below the national requirements. If allowed there, the same policies could be applied at Hanford in the future. At Yucca, this would create a harmful excess that would extend 18 km around the repository, leaving waste levels that the EPA and NRC predict are high enough to cause fatal cancer in over 3 out of 10,000 exposed adults (the national standards are set at 1 out of 10,000).

The precedent that continuing Yucca Mountain sets does not bode well for our Hanford Nuclear Waste Site. Groundwater, drinking water, and cancer-causing agent standards exist for a reason, and permitting the USDOE to make exceptions harms all affected communities.

Yucca, like Hanford, is near farms and families. It lies only 12 miles away from Amargosa Valley, a farming community that provides milk across the entire southwest.

Also like Hanford, the federal decision at Yucca will affect Native Americans whose land in the area is protected by national treaties. The Western Shoshone Nation is protected by the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, and violating this protection would put this community at enormous risk from exposure to nuclear waste.

Whether or not Yucca Mountain opens, its capacity would not be large enough to accomodate all of Hanford's wastes intended for a deep geologic repository. "Most of Hanford's High-Level Nuclear Waste has never been planned to go to Yucca Mountain," our executive director Gerry Pollet says. After the opening of Hanford's vitrification plant, 90% of the vitrified waste is planned to stay at Hanford, while the remaining 10% will require a whole new repository, as Yucca Mountain's capacity will by then be fully filled.

Cleanup needs to happen. But cleanup needs to happen without sacrificing health standards, Native American treaties, and food safety regulation.

The senators have invited nuclear waste into their electoral competition, and it certainly is a hot spot guaranteed to reel in votes. But we hope Washingtonians will consider the broader scope, and urge politicians to acknowledge the more complicated factors that should be affecting their decisions.

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