Courtesy Of Department of Energy This is a view of the engineered barrier system test at the proposed Yucca Mountain High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository. This test is designed to help scientists better understand how man-made barriers work with natural barriers. The facility has suffered some financial and political setbacks of late.

After months during which the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump has been below the radar, a flurry of developments—none of them favorable to the troubled project—have been impacting the facility.

• Over the objections of George Bush, the U.S. House of Representatives last month cut the budget for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump.

• A public comment period for a radiation standard at the site ended with much of the comment blistering.

• U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, a dump supporter, withdrew his support from the Yucca project.

• The U.S. Energy Department (DOE) inspector general’s office disclosed additional e-mail messages that suggest misconduct in the administration of the Yucca project.

• And the Las Vegas Business Press reports that the Bush administration may not renew Bechtel’s contract for Yucca site management.

The House approved $450 million for 2006, more than $100 million less than last year. The bill, H.R. 2419, passed the House by 84 to 4, which marked final legislative approval. The measure is now before Bush for his signature. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada said the measure provides $50 million for DOE to start a nuclear-fuel recycling program.

The public comment period was opened so input could be heard on the EPA’s radiation standard for the project: For the first 10,000 years, a resident near Yucca could be exposed to no more than 15 millirem of radiation per year as a result of leaks and up to 350 millirem per year thereafter.

The New York Times, noting the caustic nature of many of the public comments, said in an editorial also carried in the International Herald Tribune, “Coloradans already average 700 millirem a year of background radiation. The current residents of Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota receive even more, and few people flee those states out of fear of radiation levels. In occupational settings, people willingly accept higher doses.”

That prompted a letter to the editor of the Times from Judy Treichel of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force: “Would New Yorkers consent to 30 X-rays every year to benefit a polluting industry in Nevada?” And Chicago nuclear physicist George Marsh wrote to say that “if the spent fuel is recycled, the required isolation time for the true waste is reduced to less than 500 years.”

Domenici made his comments in a speech to nuclear power plant executives.

“For years, Yucca Mountain was the answer, and we ran around talking about it as if it were the singular answer. But we all know that it was a creature of nineteen-hundred and eighty-two. … As most of you know, it was not a good solution either on straight science, or surely, on economic grounds. So clearly, we have to move in another direction.”

The DOE inspector general’s report said one internal e-mail message said, “We may want to backdate the notebook to when we started putting things together.” Such language was present in e-mail messages disclosed earlier that are now the target of a criminal investigation because they appeared to suggest that scientists were “cooking” data to ensure the project’s success.

Tony Illia of the Business Press reported that if Bechtel wants the contract again, it may have to compete for it rather than having it renewed. “Industry sources say the DOE is planning to rebid the contract, adding that competing teams are now beginning to develop.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...