Tuesday, August 30, 2005

EPA Proposes Limiting Exposure To Radiation Near Waste Site

WSJ.com - EPA Proposes Limiting Exposure To Radiation Near Waste Site

Associated Press
August 19, 2005 7:27 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency, trying to overcome a court ruling that threatens a possible nuclear waste dump in Nevada, Tuesday proposed new radiation exposure limits for the project aimed at protecting the public for up to 1 million years.

Under the proposal, people living near the Yucca Mountain waste site 10,000 years from now could be exposed to as much as 350 additional millirems of radiation annually, more than three times what is allowed from nuclear facilities today by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The maximum levels of exposure before 10,000 years would be 15 millirems per year, a little more than a standard chest X-ray.

The new EPA standard is intended to satisfy a court decision a year ago that said the EPA's initial requirements were inadequate because they didn't address exposure limits after 10,000 years, when the site is expected to contain its highest radiation levels. The ruling threatened to cripple the project at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, unless the EPA developed new rules.

Yucca Mountain is planned as a national repository for spent commercial reactor fuel and high-level defense waste. The opening date has been repeatedly delayed and is now expected in 2012 or later.

The EPA proposal, which would become final after a public comment period, will establish a two-tier standard that limits the level of radiation exposure to the public from the waste dump -- one for a period of up to 10,000 years and another for after that point to one million years.

A federal appeals court in July 2004 said the EPA had violated a directive from Congress when it had earlier limited its exposure standards to 10,000 years. A National Academy of Sciences report had said such a standard should target the periods of greatest radiation levels from the waste, a period well beyond 10,000 years.

Under the revised standard, a person near the site must be exposed to no more than an additional 15 millirems of radiation over a year up until 10,000 years as a result of radiation leaking from the buried waste through groundwater or other sources. After 10,000 years the exposure limit from the waste site is increased to 350 millirem per year.

"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.

Mr. 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.

Jeffrey Holmstead, the EPA's head of air and radiation office, said people living near the site wouldn't be subject to "any more radiation than millions of people routinely are exposed to from natural radiation" in cities such as Denver where natural background radiation is high because of their elevation.

Annual radiation from natural sources varies widely depending on elevation and other factors, but averages about 300 millirems a year, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It can be as high as 700 millirems in some areas such as Denver, said Mr. Holmstead.

The Yucca Mountain waste site is being designed to accept highly radioactive used reactor fuel from commercial nuclear power plants around the country as well as some defense waste. The government had hoped to open the underground site by 2010, but that timetable has slipped to 2012 or possibly later.

Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the Energy Department, said the administration is firmly committed to pushing ahead with the Yucca project. "This is a standard that we can certainly meet," he said, when told of the EPA's two-tier approach. The Energy Department hopes to submit a formal application for a license for Yucca Mountain with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission early next year, although Mr. Stevens said the department was not setting a date.

Opponents of the site said it fell short of what is needed. "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."


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