Water transport issues may further delay Yucca project

The US FBI is said to be investigating possible document falsification by workers on the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository project in Nevada.

The move follows the revelation that a series of emails discussing data fabrication covering groundwater movements at the site were sent between scientists working for the US Geological Survey. The e-mails were written between 1998 and 2000 and were turned over by the Energy and Interior departments. The US Geological Survey confirmed DoE conclusions that water seepage was relatively slow at the site.

Yucca Mountain, approved by Congress in 2002, is planned as the nation’s only underground repository. Some 77,000 tonnes of defence waste and used reactor fuel is supposed to be buried for at least 10,000 years.

A House Government Reform subcommittee is expected to hold hearings on the reports to examine whether the alleged falsifications compromised scientific justification for storing waste at Yucca. The DoE inspector general is also investigating the suspected document falsification and is conducting a scientific review and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has also scheduled a hearing into the status of the long-delayed repository.

Meanwhile, the government originally promised utilities it would begin accepting spent nuclear and damages for failure to meet its obligations is already estimated at $2 – $3 billion if Yucca Mountain opens in 2010. Damages could be $1 billion a year after that. One favourable development for the troubled facility has been the recent release of portions of a classified report from the US National Academy of Sciences which has questioned the decision by regulators to allow commercial nuclear facilities to store large quantities of spent fuel in cooling tanks. The report by a 13-member panel was delivered to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last summer but portions were released to this month as part of a report Congress requested from the NRC.

The report concludes that the government does not fully understand the risks that a terrorist attack could pose to these pools and ought to expedite the removal of the fuel to dry storage casks that are more resistant to attack. The Administration has long defended the safety of the pools and the nuclear industry has warned that moving large amounts of fuel to dry storage would be unnecessary and very expensive, although about 40% of US nuclear plants have already begun moving spent fuel out of cooling pools and into dry casks.

Supporters of the Yucca project suggest that the report enhances the case for completing the storage site on the grounds of national security.