Published February 19, 2004
RENO, Nev. – The nation's nuclear waste dump proposed for Nevada is poorly designed and could leak highly radioactive waste, a scientist who recently resigned from a federal panel of experts on Yucca Mountain (search) told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Paul Craig, a physicist and engineering professor at the University of California-Davis, said he quit the panel last month so he could speak more freely about the waste dump's dangers.
Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is planned to begin receiving waste in 2010. Some 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste at commercial and military sites in 39 states would be stored in metal canisters underground in tunnels.
"The science is very clear," Craig told the AP in an interview before his first public speech about the Energy Department's design for the canisters.
"If we get high-temperature liquids, the metal would corrode and that would eventually lead to leakage of nuclear waste," Craig said.
"Therefore, it is a bad design. And that is very, very bad news for the Department of Energy because they are committed to that design," he said.
Craig, who was appointed to the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (search) by President Clinton in 1997, spoke to about 100 people later Wednesday night at a community forum in Reno sponsored by the Sierra Club.
"I would never say Yucca Mountain won't work. What I would say is the design they have won't work," he said Wednesday night. He said he's convinced the Energy Department will have to postpone the project and adopt a different design.
"It would require years of delay and my guess is that is what is going to happen. The bad science is so clear they will be unable to ignore it forever," Craig told the AP.
The 11-member technical review board outlined its concerns about the potential for corrosion in a report to the Energy Department in November about the metal for the canisters, called Alloy-22 (search) — "an upscale version of stainless steel," Craig said.
It was the most important report the board has produced since Congress created the panel in 1987, he said, but largely has been ignored by Congress and the department.
"The report says in ordinary English that under the conditions proposed by the Department of Energy, the canisters will leak," Craig said. "It was signed by every single member of the board so there would be no confusion."
Energy Department spokesman Allen Benson defended the design plans for the repository and the metal in the storage casks.
"We stand by our work," he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. He said the department was preparing a formal response to the board's November report. He had no further comment.
In Washington, D.C., officials with the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute (search) did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment.
The board's report in November said the government had failed to take into account "deliquescence" — a phenomenon regarding the reaction of salt to moisture — in its plans to operate the dump at temperatures well above boiling water, or about 200 degrees.
At those temperatures, the metal canisters would heat up, causing salts in the surrounding ground to liquefy, thus leading to corrosion, Craig said.
"It turns out the metals which look like they act pretty good at temperature levels below boiling water — those same metals act badly with temperatures that could exist" at Yucca Mountain, he said.
Craig, who also has served as a member of National Academy of Sciences (search) National Research Council Board on Radioactive Waste Management, said he sent his resignation letter to the White House in January before his term was to expire in April so he could shine more light on the government's plans.
"When you serve as a member of one of those boards, you cannot talk about the political consequences of the science or the big picture. You are supposed to stick to the science and you should stick to the science," Craig said.
"You cannot have the kind of conversation we are having now if I was still on the board."