Compromise on nuclear waste. Nevada gets the short straw in the search for a waste site; politics and geology played a part

The search for a place to store highly radioactive waste in the United States has been pushed off dead center - and into Nevada. In a compromise amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA), congressional negotiators late last week named Nevada's Yucca Mountain as the sole site to focus on. It was one of three spots favored for a permanent repository in the West. The others were Deaf Smith County, Texas, and Hanford, Wash. All work to study the suitability of these other sites will stop.

The compromise includes a 20-year hold on the search for a permanent repository in the East. It also gives the green light to a search - somewhere in the East - for a facility to package and temporarily store high-level waste awaiting permanent disposal. Construction on this site could not begin until after building began on the permanent repository.

At press time the budget bill containing the compromise had not cleared Congress. But the amendment is expected to survive, even if President Reagan vetoes the bill and sends it back to Capitol Hill for more work.

The NWPA is the nation's blueprint for dealing with highly radioactive waste from US nuclear power plants. Born of complex political negotiations, the original act called for the selection of one repository in the West and one in the East.

But last year the Department of Energy (DOE) postponed the search for an Eastern site.

The agency said that after looking at trends in the nuclear industry, the US was not likely to need two sites. But others eyed congressional races in the East and the GOP's slipping grip on the Senate and pointed to election-year politics as the reason.

From a technical standpoint, the DOE put forth ``a good reason,'' says a spokesman for the US Council for Energy Awareness (CEA), an industry group that supports the commercial use of nuclear energy. ``But it didn't hold water politically.''

The carefully crafted compromise between East and West collapsed, he says, leading Western states to ``dig in their heels and stall the program.''

Geologically, Yucca Mountain is the most favorable of the three Western locations, says Noel Trask, a geologist with the US Geological Survey in Reston, Va.

``It's basic attribute is that it's above the water table,'' he says, so it's less likely that water would get into the repository, corrode storage canisters, and become radioactive. In principle, the storage site must prevent radioactive leaks for thousands of years.

In addition, the underground repository would be dug out of hard, stable rock called tuff, formed from violent volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.

Some of the rock formations also contain large amounts of minerals called zeolites, which take impurities out of water. Hence they could serve as filters if radioactive materials should leak from the site.

But the region is earthquake prone. ``There is some evidence that there are faults on the site that have the potential for a magnitude six or seven earthquake within the lifetime of the site,'' says Carl Johnson, with Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects.

The concern is that earthquakes either could damage the storage cavern or fracture surrounding rocks in ways that would allow water to leak into the facility.

Hence scientists will need to get a better handle on fault activity, as well as on any potential effects of nearby underground nuclear tests.

Mr. Johnson said that while there is ``insufficient data'' to support the notion that underground tests could destabilize the site, ``there is a gut feeling among scientists'' that nuclear tests may add stress to the faults in the area, making earthquakes more likely. The detailed federal studies of the site's suitability could begin as early as January 1989.

While several Nevada lawmakers vehemently denounced the compromise, ``the decision is no surprise to anyone,'' says a spokesman for Sen. Jacob Hecht (R) of Nevada. He says the senator not only opposes nuclear waste burial in Nevada but holds that reprocessing is a better answer to the waste problem.

``Nevada has long been envisioned as the most likely choice,'' the spokesman says, not only because of geology but because Yucca Mountain is part of the Nevada Test Site, where the Department of Energy detonates underground nuclear tests. And the state ``is sparsely populated, and it's not politically powerful,'' he says.

While opponents of the compromise, which include Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan (D), are bitter, the measure has brightened the holiday season for the nuclear industry. ``If you scratch the industry real deep, you'll find people saying this could be a breakthrough on the waste issue,'' says the CEA spokesman.

The lack of permanent storage for commercially generated high-level nuclear waste has been one of the issues the anti-nuclear forces have emphasized in their attempt to reduce or eliminate the nation's dependence on nuclear energy.

For lawmakers such as Rep. Morris Udall (D) of Arizona, who was a principal architect of the 1982 act, the compromise represents what he called a common-sense way of breaking the impasse.

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