June 6, 2008

Yucca Mountain safety plan is 'doomed,' nuclear company says

In an earthquake, casks of radioactive waste could bounce and roll in a 'chaotic melee,' Holtec International says of the Energy Department proposal

By Ralph Vartabedian
Los Angeles Times

The Energy Department's safety plan for handling containers of radioactive waste before they are buried at the proposed Yucca Mountain dump has become a "fool's errand," according to a major nuclear equipment supplier.

Under current plans, the casks of nuclear waste material awaiting burial at Yucca Mountain could be sent into a "chaotic melee of bouncing and rolling juggernauts" in an earthquake, according to Holtec International, one of the nation's largest manufacturers of nuclear waste storage systems.

The blistering critique of safety standards is in a newsletter that Holtec sent last week to its customers and suppliers, warning that the project has become a "doomed undertaking." Holtec supplies storage casks to power plants around the country.

Nevada officials say the harsh comments deepen their concerns about the site of the repository.

"It shows a lack of attention to safety," Robert Loux, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said Thursday.

An Energy Department spokesman said he had not seen Holtec's critique and had no immediate response. The agency applied Tuesday for a license to build the facility, calling for 70,000 metric tons of waste eventually to be sent by truck and rail to the mountain.

Once the waste arrived, it would have to cool down -- for years in some cases -- before being placed in deep tunnels. Joy Russell, Holtec's sales and marketing manager, said the Energy Department wanted the material to cool down in casks without adequate seismic anchors or other restraints.

In May, the government rejected a proposal from Holtec for a temporary underground storage system that the company says would maintain safety in the event of earthquakes and airplane crashes. It instead chose two lower bidders who proposed unanchored systems, Russell said.

The company intends to develop the below-ground storage system at its own cost.

The government expects Yucca Mountain to experience earthquakes that produce ground movement comparable to a magnitude 6.5. In such a quake, "pigs will fly before the cask[s] will stay put," the newsletter said.