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Nevada officials will ask the federal courts to block a decision on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site, claiming the Energy Department has abandoned a congressional mandate that the site’s natural geology must protect the public from radiation. Instead, the Nevada officials say, the latest design for the waste burial ground, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, relies “nearly 100 percent” on engineered barriers to assure the waste’s isolation. The design amounts to “a glorified waste package” that could be deemed scientifically suitable “even if sited on the shores of Lake Tahoe,” Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, wrote Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. The salvo is only the latest in the increasingly bitter confrontation between Nevada officials and the Bush administration over the proposed nuclear repository. It is supposed to hold thousands of tons of used reactor fuel now kept at nuclear power plants in 31 states. If given the go-ahead, it is scheduled to open in 2010. Early next year Abraham is expected to recommend to President Bush that the site be approved, although department officials emphasized Tuesday that no decision has been made by Abraham so far. Robert Loux, the Nevada governor’s top adviser on the nuclear waste site, said in an interview that Nevada will file a lawsuit next week, possibly Monday, and ask the court to block Abraham from making a recommendation. The Nevada lawsuit will argue that the Energy Department has failed to follow the legal requirement that the waste site rely almost exclusively on its natural geology to safeguard the waste, including radioisotopes that will remain highly radioactive for more than 10,000 years. Instead, the state argues, the Energy Department is incorporating numerous engineered barriers to counter shortcomings in the site’s geology. “The notion that geological features must be the primary form of containment is … explicitly required” by the 1982 law that is the basis for developing a nuclear waste repository, Guinn wrote. Energy Department officials dismissed the state’s latest threat of legal action and strongly defended the use of both geology and engineered barriers. “We’re not relying specifically on engineered barriers to meet the regulations. We are looking at the scientific evidence of both the geological and engineered barriers together to determine the site’s suitability,” said DOE spokesman Joe Davis. “One doesn’t outweigh the other. They both work hand in hand,” said Davis. The department contends that Congress in 1992 cleared the way for use of a “total system performance” approach to safeguarding the waste. But Loux said that Congress also envisioned that the site’s geology “be the primary barrier” to isolate the waste and that the approach by the Energy Department “does not even come close to being in compliance the law.” In recent years, the scientists and engineers working on the Yucca Mountain project have incorporated more manmade protective devices. For example, after concern was raised about the possible effect of water moving through the rocks, stronger and more corrosion-resistant canisters were added to the design. “Drip shields” were added to keep water from hitting the waste once the containers begin to disintegrate hundreds of years from now. An alternative design spreads out the canisters to deal with the impact of high temperatures on surrounding rocks. These improvements only add to the site’s safeguards and do not detract from the fact that “the mountain performs pretty well” in protecting the waste, says Marvin Fertel, a vice president for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade association. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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