Gibbons: DOE ignored research reactors

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News   |   April 25, 2002 at 6:56 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 25 (UPI) -- The Department of Energy understated the potential impact of transporting nuclear waste to the proposed Yucca Mountain storage site by failing to include the nation's research reactors in its environmental impact statement, Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., said Thursday.

The DOE said the assertion was mistaken.

Gibbons appeared as a witness before a House Transportation Committee hearing on issues related to transporting spent nuclear fuel. The DOE's Yucca Mountain Project EIS ignored at least 54 sites whose waste would end up at the Nevada site, Gibbons said.

"This means hundreds or thousands of critical waste shipments and tens of thousands of transport miles were completely left out of DOE's evaluation," Gibbons told the committee. "DOE would apparently have you believe this is no big deal."

Most of the sites Gibbons referred to are facilities at major universities, which use small reactors to research nuclear medicine and provide examination tools for studying several areas of basic science. The 54 sites, however, have been researched in other DOE filings, said Joe Davis, a DOE spokesman.

"It's fair to say that we've looked at all the sites that are producing nuclear waste," Davis told United Press International. "We know where they are, and we know what the transportation impacts would be, from years of study, if the waste eventually ended up at Yucca Mountain. It would be incorrect for anyone to imply that our final EIS is not thorough and complete."

Amy Spanbauer, Gibbons' spokeswoman, told UPI the congressman stands by his assertion that DOE has not met its statutory requirements in reviewing Yucca's environmental impact.

"That's always going to be a point of contention, based on so many scientific questions that remain unanswered," Spanbauer said.

Research reactors have been shipping their spent fuel to sites such as the DOE's Savannah River, S.C., complex for years, said John Bernard, director of the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Research reactors rarely have any spent fuel on their premises, he said.

"DOE owns the fuel, so it's not like the utilities that own their own fuel and are looking for a place to put it," Bernard told UPI. "(We deal with) a very small amount of fuel, perhaps six or eight elements a year ... far less than a commercial reactor."

In his testimony, Gibbons also said research reactor spent fuel is more vulnerable to terrorism or theft because of a high percentage of highly enriched or "weapons-grade" uranium.

Uranium has two natural isotopes, U-235 and U-238, the first of which occurs rarely in nature. It is less stable and therefore is what fuels a nuclear fission reaction. Reactor fuel has only a few percent of U-235, while enriched nuclear weapons material is primarily U-235.

Research reactor fuel has more of the volatile isotope than commercial fuel but a far smaller percentage than what is found in weapons material, Bernard said.

During nuclear fission in a reactor, the U-238 can transform to plutonium, another weapons-grade material, Bernard said. The lower percentage of U-238 in research reactor fuel, however, would keep plutonium production levels below that of commercial fuel, he said. And spent research reactor fuel would not be very valuable to groups looking to make a bomb, he said.

"Once you've 'burned' fuel for more than a month or so, it isn't really feasible to make a weapon out of it," Bernard said. "There are enough isotopes in there that (prevent fission) so that making a weapon wouldn't be practical ... it's far easier to start from scratch with raw material."

Research reactors were not the only concerns raised at the hearing. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., a committee member and staunch opponent of placing a waste repository in her state at Yucca, said antitank missiles could puncture a waste transport container.

"This type of terrorist attack, essentially causing a dirty bomb effect, would be disastrous to the environment and to human life," Berkley said.

Comments from experts interviewed earlier by UPI said such a scenario, while serious, is nowhere near as likely as Yucca opponents imply. Even if an antitank warhead penetrated a waste container, studies indicate the radiation release would consist mostly of gases that would rapidly disperse in the atmosphere.

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