EPA Proposing Radiation Exposure Limits at Yucca Mountain for One Million Years

Conceding there's no way to know what life will be like in a million years, the Environmental Protection Agency nevertheless proposed limits Tuesday on how much radiation a person should be exposed to from a nuclear waste dump in that distant time.

WASHINGTON — Conceding there's no way to know what life will be like in a million years, the Environmental Protection Agency nevertheless proposed limits Tuesday on how much radiation a person should be exposed to from a nuclear waste dump in that distant time.

The proposal would limit exposure near the proposed Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada to 15 millirems a year for 10,000 years into the future, but then increase the allowable level to 350 millirems for up to 1 million years.

That higher level is more than three times what is allowed from nuclear facilities today by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

A standard chest X-ray is about 10 millirems.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a staunch critic of the Yucca project, called the standard the product of "voodoo science and arbitrary numbers." The state's other senator, Republican John Ensign, said the standard had no scientific basis and was "a blatant disregard for ... the health of Nevadans."


Asked if there was any way to assure such a standard would be relevant or be met that far in the future, the EPA's Jeffrey Holmstead replied, "That's a pretty darn good question. ... We do the best job given all the science we have."

The radiation exposure issue has threatened to cripple the government's plans to bury 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste -- mostly used reactor fuel rods now at commercial power plants -- beneath a volcanic ridge at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert 90 miles from Las Vegas.

A year ago a federal court said the EPA standard, which is supposed to ensure nearby residents won't be harmed by leaking radioactivity from the dump, was inadequate because it didn't establish exposure limits beyond 10,000 years.

On Tuesday, the EPA announced a revised standard that reaches out to a million years.

"That's longer, many times longer than human history," said Holmstead, adding that he's certain the rule will be protective of the public. Once the standard is made final after a comment period, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will decide whether the Yucca facility's design is adequate to meet it.

"We're setting a standard that not only protects our children, our grandchildren ... it will protect the next 25,000 generations," said Holmstead.

But opponents of the Yucca waste project, including state officials in Nevada., saw it differently.

"In short they've decided to kill a few people," said Joe Egan, an attorney who represented Nevada in the court fight over the project. "This is an obvious effort to give the project a pass" after the 10,000 year period.

Egan said the standard would allow as much as 700 millirem of radiation exposure a year, when added to the 350 millirem of natural background radiation in the Yucca area. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which must still approve a permit for the Yucca waste site, limits public radiation exposure from nuclear facilities it licenses to no more than 100 millirems per year.

Holmstead, who is the EPA's head of air and radiation office, said a person living near the Yucca site will not be subjected to radiation "higher than people are routinely exposed to throughout the country" from natural background sources.

He noted that background radiation in Denver is 700 millirems, partly because of its high elevation. The EPA in its document cited natural background radiation levels in Colorado, North and South Dakota and Iowa in some cases was well over 700 millirems a year because of elevation and geology.

But Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear physicist who has been critical of the Yucca project and other government nuclear programs, called the standard "lax" and too vague and said to link Yucca Mountain exposure standards to background radiation is misleading if -- as the EPA does -- you include radiation from naturally occurring radon.

Radiation from radon, which occurs naturally in some rocks, can be extremely high in some areas. The NRC says 55 percent of human exposure to ionized radiation comes from radon. The average background radiation from natural sources including radon is about 300 millirem nationwide, according to the NRC.

Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the Energy Department, said the administration is firmly committed to pushing ahead with the Yucca project. It plans to submit a formal application for a license to the NRC next year.

"This is a standard that we can certainly meet," said Stevens, when told of the EPA's two-tier approach.

Reaction to the standard in Nevada was mixed.

"It's not a protective standard," said Judy Treichel, director of the Las Vegas-based Nuclear Waste Task Force, which opposes the Yucca project. "It's a way, I guess, for the EPA to help the Department of Energy build its dump."

David Swanson, chief of the nuclear repository oversight office in rural Nye County, called it "probably appropriate"

"You take your best shot with what you have predicting what will happen in the future, and then you monitor it," he said, adding he feels "comfortable" with the requirements out to 10,000 years. "It's just ridiculous to attempt to project farther than that."


Associated Press writer Ken Ritter contributed to this story from Las Vegas.

Source: Associated Press