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Gambling on Yucca Mountain

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(February 1, 2002) Despite Spencer Abraham's recommendation that Yucca Mountain is a scientifically sound solution for U.S. nuclear waste, recent findings from an oversight board set up by Congress show just what a gamble Yucca really is. Meanwhile, gambling of a different kind is coming under scrutiny as industry lobby group Nuclear Energy Institute comes under fire for treating key Congress aides to "educational" weekends in Las Vegas.

(562.5365) WISE Amsterdam - The 11-member Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, a technical watchdog created by Congress, said that the Yucca Mountain plan is fraught with uncertainties1. The board did not go as far as the General Accounting Office, which in a 30 November 2001 report recommended that the Bush administration postpone the Yucca decision indefinitely2. However, their conclusions were still pretty damning.

They said that the technical basis for the Department of Energy's repository performance estimates is "weak to moderate at this time"3. The analysis of the facility depends largely on computer models that try to predict what will happen thousands of years into the future. The board said that such models pose scientific uncertainty. Others have gone further, saying "The extrapolation of short-term to long-term studies at Yucca Mountain flies in the face of 300 years of geological practice"4.

The board put it more mildly, saying that despite 13 years of scientific study of the Yucca site, there remain "gaps in data and basic understanding" of how the volcanic rock and hydrology, together with the artificial barriers designed to contain the waste, will perform over tens of thousands of years. As a result the board has "limited confidence" in the DOE's predictions that the site will provide the necessary protection over such a long period, and urged the DOE to find ways to make their predictions "more realistic".

However, the Energy Department took heart in one of the board's comments: that no matter where nuclear waste is put there will be uncertainties5. Of course, they failed to draw the obvious conclusion: that the inevitable uncertainties around nuclear waste mean that we must stop producing more of it...



A broad coalition of environmental and public interest organizations delivered a letter to Congress today drawing attention to the flawed process that has characterized the Department of Energy's (DOE) Yucca Mountain Project and urging lawmakers to reject the proposal for a high-level nuclear waste dump in Nevada.

The groups also distributed a November report by the DOE Inspector General, which uncovered conflicts of interest involving contractors on the Yucca Mountain Project. According to the report, the law firm Winston & Strawn was simultaneously employed as counsel to the DOE, working on the Yucca Mountain Project, and was registered as a member of and lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the pro-repository nuclear industry trade group.

"Clearly, the DOE has failed to exercise necessary oversight of its contractors, resulting in an apparent pro-industry bias in the agency's site characterization and site recommendation activities," the groups wrote in the letter. "It would be irresponsible for Congress to allow the Yucca Mountain Project to continue without a thorough review of the causes and consequences of contractor conflict of interest that have recently been brought to light."

The letter was endorsed by 22 national organizations, including the Sierra Club, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Indigenous Environmental Network. In addition, 210 regional, local and Native American groups from 50 states and the District of Columbia endorsed the letter. The letter and list of endorsing groups can be viewed on the Public Citizen web site

"Advocates for public health, safety and the environment agree that the Yucca Mountain Project is a disaster," said Kevin Kamps, nuclear waste specialist with NIRS, a signatory to the letter. "Far from solving the nuclear waste problem, this irresponsible project would introduce new risks to the state of Nevada and the 44 other states through which nuclear waste would be transported."

Lisa Gue, policy analyst with the national consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, agreed. "An honest process would have shelved this dangerous proposal long ago," she said. "In defense of responsible, accountable government, as well as public health and safety, we are joining with concerned citizens across the country in urging members of Congress to oppose the Yucca Mountain Project."

Source and contact: Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, 1600 20th St. NW, Washington, DC. 20009, U.S.A. Tel +1 202 588 1000.
Email: Web:

NRC proposal for "probability limits"
At around the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) proposed to amend its regulations for Yucca Mountain to exclude "unlikely" events when determining compliance with radiation dose standards for groundwater protection and human intrusion6. The NRC defines "unlikely" as anything with a less than 10% chance of happening in 10,000 years.

This suggests that when deciding what to do with U.S. high-level nuclear waste, the NRC will accept a solution that is ten cents short of a dollar. As a risk threshold for "unlikely" events, the NRC's proposal is a thousand times weaker than the one chance in 100 million per year set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its June 2001 standards for Yucca Mountain7. Still, whatever the odds, Yucca Mountain is clearly a gamble: a gamble on the safety of future generations for millennia to come.

NEI's free "educational" trips to Las Vegas
Gambling of a different kind has come under scrutiny with revelations that the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) paid nearly $50,000 treating 44 key Congress aides to Las Vegas weekends during 2001. The package includes meals, round-trip flights and a two-night stay at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino8.

Nevada officials said the weekends were pure junkets, and Senator Harry Reid commented, "That's a payola if I've ever seen it". However, NEI officials insisted that the weekends were "intense" and left little time for playing slot machines, enjoying the Mandalay Bay Hotel's 11-acre artificial tropical beach or dining at its four-story "wine tower".

The "intense" part is the Saturday, which begins at 7 a.m. with a presentation, followed by a Yucca Mountain tour that finishes around 4 p.m., after which the aides are free to enjoy what Las Vegas has to offer. NEI director of outreach Chandler Van Orman said, "It's a long, tiring day, and it's filled with more information than the normal human can compute".

This sounds like a classic psychological trick: information overload. When people experience information overload, they tend to accept ideas without doubting or questioning them9. That is obviously what the NEI would like: that aides whose bosses sit on key committees accept Yucca Mountain.

Whether the weekends consist of junketing, information overload or both, it is clear that the nuclear lobby is pulling out all the stops to get Yucca approved. Indeed, according to a 1997 database, the NEI underwrote 95 "fact-finding" trips, making it one of the top sponsors of congressional travel. 72 of those trips were Las Vegas weekends to "learn" about Yucca Mountain10.


  1. AP, 25 January 2002
  2. See WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 561.5364, "Spencer Abraham says yes to Yucca Mountain".
  3. Observations from Steve Frishman, Technical Policy Coordinator, Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, 24 January 2002
  4. Dartmouth geologist N. Oreskes, quoted in K. S. Shrader-Frechette, Burying Uncertainty, 1993 (University of California Press).
  5. AP, 25 January 2002
  6. NRC news release, 22 January 2002.
  7. Email from Steve Frishman, 23 January 2002
  8. Daily Review, 27 January 2002
  9. "When adults are subjected to great stress or heavy cognitive load, the ability to doubt and reject ideas is impaired." Gilbert, D.T. How mental systems believe, in American Psychologist 46, 107-119 (1991).
  10. Information from Center for Responsive Politics, quoted in Daily Review, 27 January 2002

Contact: NIRS at