EPA chief and former Utah governor may seek rewrite of radiation safety law
Sep. 21WASHINGTONWith plans to bury the nation's nuclear waste in Nevada looking more uncertain, Environmental Protection Agency head Mike Leavitt may ask Congress to rewrite a critical radiation safety law so the dump can open as planned in 2010.
But the National Academies of Science Board on Radioactive Waste Management -- charged with advising Congress on radioactive waste policy -- was told Monday there may not be much political appetite to waive another set of regulations for the sake of keeping the proposed Yucca Mountain repository alive.
Utah lawmakers, who have supported entombing the 77,000 tons of high-level waste, now scattered in 39 states, at Yucca Mountain, are concerned continued delays in the Nevada repository could mean more pressure to license temporary storage at Utah's Skull Valley.
Adding to the uncertainty is the race for the White House. Democratic nominee John Kerry has pledged to stop waste from being buried in Nevada, while President Bush signed the decision that cleared the way for the Yucca Mountain repository.
"That is rhetoric, since Kerry could have stopped it when he was in the Senate if he wanted to, but if so, Skull Valley becomes a primary temporary site, and temporary can be up to 100 years," Utah Republican Congressman Rob Bishop, whose district includes Skull Valley, said in an interview. "I had one Nevada politician tell me that if there's only a temporary reprieve that lasts 100 years, they don't care, they'll be happy."
The trouble now is a federal court ruling that EPA's 10,000-year limit on the amount of radiation released from the dump should have followed a National Academies recommendation for a limit on releases over hundreds of thousands of years. The Department of Energy designed Yucca Mountain to meet EPA's 10,000-year radiation standard, not the longer term the court says is required by law but that some lawmakers feel is virtually impossible to comply with.
The ruling means Leavitt, who as Utah's governor crusaded against temporarily storing Yucca-bound waste on the Goshute Indian Reservation in Skull Valley, must decide whether EPA should write a new set of radiation limits to protect future generations or ask Congress to rewrite the 1992 Energy Policy Act to uphold the EPA's 10,000-year standard.
"The appearance to the public would be that Congress, having realized Yucca Mountain could not meet existing standards, was trying to dumb down the standards to meet Yucca Mountain," Sam Fowler, Democratic chief counsel to the Senate Energy Committee, told the board Monday.
Whatever the federal government does, the state of Nevada vows it will continue to fight.
"As a matter of actual morality, you shouldn't have a repository that you know will eventually be unsafe," said Joe Egan, lead attorney for the state.
Fowler said Yucca Mountain faces "a number of potentially fatal problems" on Capitol Hill, including a chance congressional budget writers could slash funding for Yucca Mountain this year to the point "there's not even enough to decently shut it down."
The DOE still intends to file a licensing application for Yucca Mountain in December based on EPA's 10,000-year protection standard. EPA Assistant Administrator Jeff Holmstead said "it's certainly possible we would go back to Congress" and ask lawmakers to rewrite the law, but no decisions have been made yet.
"We are committed to developing an appropriate regulatory response," said Holmstead. "The direction I've received from my boss, the administrator, is we want to respond to the court as quickly as we can."
Asked by Radioactive Waste Management Board member Norine Noonan just when EPA plans to decide what to do next, Holmstead said the internal discussions will "take a number of months, but we will have a decision in less than 10,000 years."
(c) 2004, The Salt Lake Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.