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Proposed EPA Radiation Standards Would Last 1 Million Years

[Based on EPA press release]

Washington, DC, Aug 09, 2005

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing new public health standards for the planned high-level radioactive waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada that would protect public health for 1 million years. Under the standards, residents living close to the facility would not receive total radiation higher than natural levels people experience routinely in other areas of the country.

The site for the potential Yucca Mountain spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste repository is located on federally owned land on the western edge of the Nevada Test Site in southern Nye County, Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. In the current Yucca Mountain repository design, the radioactive material would be placed about 1000 feet beneath the land surface and about 1000 feet above the closest ground water. The repository is designed to hold 70,000 metric tons of waste, ninety percent of which would be spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants and ten percent of which would be high-level radioactive waste from government defense projects.

The proposed standards set a maximum dose level for the first 10,000 years, more than twice as long as recorded human history. To provide safety beyond 10,000 years to 1 million years, EPA is proposing a separate, higher dose limit based on natural background radiation levels that people currently live with in the United States. The proposed standards also require that the facility must withstand the effects of earthquakes, volcanoes and significantly increased rainfall while safely containing the waste during the 1 million-year period.

"It is an unprecedented scientific challenge to develop proposed standards today that will protect the next 25,000 generations of Americans," EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Jeffrey Holmstead said. "EPA met this challenge by using the best available scientific approaches and has issued a standard that will protect public health for a million years."

Congress authorized different federal agencies to perform different functions related to Yucca Mountain. EPA sets standards to protect human health and safety. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is responsible for implementing EPA's standards and determining if the Yucca Mountain facility can be safe enough to contain nuclear waste. The Department of Energy (DOE) owns, constructs, applies for licenses, and will operate the facility, should it be approved. The Yucca Mountain facility will open only if it meets EPA's standards to protect human health and the environment.

The proposed standards retain and add to EPA's original Yucca Mountain standards issued in 2001 and are also responsive to the ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued in July 2004.

Once EPA’s revised standards are final, the NRC will revise its licensing regulations for the repository to be consistent with EPA's amended standards. DOE must then submit a detailed application for Yucca Mountain which clearly shows that the repository can meet the standards. Based on the application, NRC will determine whether the Yucca Mountain repository complies with EPA’s standards and with other requirements of NRC’s own Yucca Mountain regulation. NRC may then approve or disapprove the license for construction of the repository and acceptance of radioactive waste.

EPA will accept written public comment for 60 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register. The agency will also hold public hearings during the comment period.

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