Environmental Justice at Yucca Mountain

An Analysis of the U.S. Department of Energy "Draft Environmental Impact Statement" For the Proposed Nuclear Waste Repository At Yucca Mountain

The following is an open letter from Leuren Moret, Past President, Association for Women Geoscientists, to Craig Walton, Professor of Philosophy, and Alan Zundel, Assist. Professor of Political Science, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada (USA). The opening paragraphs of the letter explain its significance and purpose. The body of the letter discusses environmental justice issues about nuclear waste, particularly at the proposed waste depository at Yucca Mountain.

For further information about the Yucca Mountain project from a Western Shoshone perspective, see Shundahai Network and Western Shoshone Territorial integrity Litigation.


The Association for Women Geoscientists expresses no opinion on the matters contained in Dr. Moret's letter, but wishes to emphasize that Dr. Moret is not representing AWG in any capacity. For further explanation of this disclaimer, go to http://www.awg.org/disclaimer.html

January 8, 2001

Dr. Craig Walton, Professor of Philosophy
Dr. Alan Zundel, Assist. Professor of Political Science
University of Nevada
Las Vegas Nevada

Dear Craig and Alan,

Judy Treichel emailed your report to me today: Environmental Justice in the DOE Yucca Mountain DEIS: An Analysis of the Treatment of Environmental Justice Issues in the Dept. of Energy "Draft Environmental Impact Statement" For the Proposed Nuclear Waste Repository At Yucca Mountain and Other Documents (http://www.unlv.edu/Colleges/Liberal_Arts/Ethics_and_Policy/yucca.html). Here are my comments.

In 1995, the Association for Women Geoscientists introduced Environmental Justice (EJ) to the scientific community at the annual Geological Society of America (GSA) conference in New Orleans. It was introduced as an invited symposia and co-sponsored by the GSA Committee on Minorities and Women and the National Association for Black Geologists and Geophysicists. It concerned the "cancer corridor" caused by industrial pollutants released between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Louisiana. Because it was well received, we have continued presenting EJ programs at GSA. This year I organized a program for the annual GSA conference which was held last November in Reno. It seemed appropriate to present An Environmental Justice Case Study at a Nuclear Weapons Facility: Lawrence Livermore Lab (LLNL), the Nevada Test Site and Yucca Mtn. Because I had worked from 1989-1991 as a staff scientist at LLNL on the Yucca Mtn. project part of the time, I was familiar with Yucca Mtn. scientific research and the radiation issues in the Livermore community. This year I have worked with Tri-Valley CARE's on radioactive contamination in the community, and can document one million Curies of radioactive tritium that has been released into the Livermore Valley. Elevated levels of tritium have been reported in valley wines, indicating that the tritium is organically bound, increasing the toxicity 250,000 times. LLNL has used various methods to underrate the health effects caused by radiation contamination related to their nuclear weapons activities. The lab has monitored skin cancer ("mole patrol") on employees, but refused to release social security numbers (which gave access to federal health databases) to state health agencies for epidemiological studies on lab workers. Studies on community cancer rates by state agencies had funding cuts which ended their investigations. This was probably related to earlier findings in the community of elevated cancer levels in children by the same agency. The radiation protection industry has further misrepresented the health effects from radiation by limiting it to cancer, which is only one of many illnesses resulting from exposures.

After working very hard for seven months to invite speakers (Judy Treichel, Corbin Harney, Dr. Andreas Toupadakis, Vern Brechin, Carrie Dann, Tom Carpenter, Dr. Marilyn Underwood) and with encouragement from GSA officials and members, the program for GSA was cancelled. Three of the abstracts were arbitrarily rejected by Dr. Dave Verardo, without explanation or committee review. It was particularly disappointing because Dr. Verardo served as a GSA Congressional science advisor, and represents young scientific leadership nationally as the incoming Chair of the GSA Public Policy Committee. It was obvious to me that "the public" had nothing to do with his concept of public policy, yet the disposal of high level radioactive waste (hlrw) is the most important scientific issue for this century. Because of the importance of these issues to citizens of Nevada, I would like to organize a program for the annual GSA 2001 which will be held in Boston next November. Would you be interested in helping to organize and co-sponsor such a program? Since we are starting early, we can get a broader perspective with political representatives, academia, students, Native Americans and activists on the program. The invited speakers who accepted last year may be willing to speak in November. Contributors to your study and students from other departments would be welcome additions to the program.

Your study focused on the ethics and public policy from an EJ perspective. Below are some comments on Yucca Mountain from a geologic perspective. All of these factors must be considered with the community perspective in order to make democratic decisions based on good science. The issues being considered at Yucca Mountain not only concern the disposal of high level radioactive waste in the US, but our decisions and solutions will be considered in other countries struggling with this problematic issue. The US should take the moral leadership to resolve this global issue instead of shoving it in a can, screwing the lid on and saying it's safe. It is critical, because of the certainty of future radioactive contamination of groundwater in the global environment, to first find a scientifically sound solution in the US. Geologic burial of radioactive waste, in my opinion, is not suitable for a number of reasons which should be considered by any decision makers. Geologic burial will result in radioactive contamination of the groundwater from leaking waste, it is just a matter of time. We as a global community cannot afford this. The world is out of water. Geoscientists cannot safely predict, with simplistic computer modeling methods now used, the complexity of natural systems interacting with hlrw over deep time (geologic time which can be thousands, millions or billions of years). The viability of containers fabricated to hold hlrw is also an unknown. Because we have been studying radiation for a short time, it is ludicrous for scientists to make statements that it will be "safe" in containers in underground storage for 10,000 years. The DOE plan to fill the tunnels with cement destroys the very purpose of selecting geologic burial - the ability to retrieve and monitor hlrw, and disturbs the natural system selected for its ability to isolate the waste.

Site suitability using scientific guidelines for consideration of a geologic repository should evaluate:

  1. groundwater movement
  2. climatic stability
  3. geologic stability

Yucca Mtn. has failed to meet these criteria in investigations outlined in the DEIS, and is unsuitable for many reasons beyond these key factors.

It has been in the interests of the nuclear weapons and nuclear power industries to downplay the health effects of radiation. These industries are initiating the death crisis of our species, and the disposal of hlrw will add to the rising death toll. It is a violation of human rights to cause an unwanted attack on a person or their reproductive capacity. There are no safe levels of radiation exposure for living organisms. Dr. Rosalie Bertell has calculated the real number of victims of the nuclear age (The Ecologist v.29 no.7 November 1999). During the past fifty years from weapons testing, she reports 376 million cancers, 235 million genetic effects, and 587 million teratogenic effects which total 1,200 million people affected. Electricity production from nuclear plants during 1943-2000, may have led to another million victims, with as much as 20% resulting in premature cancer deaths. Not officially counted, are as many as 500 million still births from radiation exposure while in the womb during that time period.

In her estimates of fatal and non-fatal cancers, they are more than doubled if skin cancers are included. This indicates that elevated skin cancer rates at LLNL are just part of total cancers for lab workers and that the lab is under-reporting cancer rates. Politicians, government experts, establishment scientists and the radiation protection industry are telling us we have nothing to fear. Dr. Bertell's book No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth (revised 2001) reveals how the nuclear industry massively underestimates the real cost to human health and hides the victims with restrictive definitions of radiation-caused illnesses. Poor bureaucratic solutions to hlrw disposal will increase the numbers of victims of the nuclear age.

The transport of hlrw is also a critical issue, particularly after comments from the audience at a NRC public meeting on "Packaging and Transportation of Radioactive Materials" held in Oakland, California, on Sept. 26, 2000. During the discussion, a man in the audience wondered if anyone had information about a lost railroad shipment of fuel rods. Another woman spoke up about a lost railroad shipment of fuel rods in casks which had been missing for 1 week last summer. She said it was finally located in Sacramento. The man said he was talking about a lost shipment in Nevada. Neither Bill Brach (NRC) nor Fred Ferarte (DOT) had knowledge of any lost fuel rod shipments. With 100,000 shipments over the next 30 years, further unnecessary exposure of citizens will occur when the responsible agencies are not even informed and cover-ups preclude developing better tracking methods. Citizens will be exposed and never know it.

The 2000 World Conference Against Atomic & Hydrogen Bombs was held last August, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Thanks to Judy Treichel, I was invited to speak at the Plenary Session about Yucca Mtn. and hlrw issues. It was a new and rewarding experience for me as a scientist. I was invited to visit communities in Japan where their "Yucca Mountain" will be forced on unwilling citizens. We had town hall meetings, visited city officials and held press conferences, talked to activists, and visited proposed siting facilities. When I was leaving, the citizens told me "You are the only honest scientist we have met..." That was very sad for me to hear, especially after I had seen how they were able to use the scientific facts and information I gave them to challenge their elected officials in order to make better decisions for future generations. I have sent a binder of my trip through Japan, speaking about Yucca Mountain, to Congresswoman Shelley Berkley and hope that she will feel energized and encouraged to continue her fight for the citizens of Nevada. The Japanese people are in solidarity with Nevadans.

You made a comment in your report about the need for scientists to step forward and speak out on issues. Recently I have read three books which reveal the demonization of scientists who act with ethics and integrity and the politicization of science on nuclear issues:

The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation by Gayle Greene (1999)
Making a Real Killing - Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West by Len Ackland (2000)
Fire in the Rain: The Democratic Consequences of Chernobyl by Peter Gould (1990)

These books are insightful about the public policy and ethics of nuclear issues, and the need for scientists to take personal responsibility and act in the best interests of the citizens and communities who are most affected by irresponsible bureaucratic decisions. I hope that we can work together to bring this message to scientists through scientific society participation at GSA next Fall, and encourage scientists working on nuclear issues to take personal responsibility. The article in the May-June 2000 issue of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists by Robert Alvarez, formerly of the DOE Office of Public Policy, sums up DOE priorities:

In the fall of 1995, I found myself in a hallway facing down an angry senior Energy Department career officer after I blocked a deal that would have allowed some 10,000 tons of radiation-contaminated nickel from nuclear weapons operations to be recycled into the civilian metal supply, where some percentage of it would inevitably wind up in stainless steel items such as intrauterine devices, surgical tools, children's orthodontic braces, kitchen sinks, zippers, and flatware. However, that confrontation was not to be the end of the scrap metal gambit. [He describes more politics before a decision by Richardson] ...In February, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson put a hold on releasing the contaminated metal from Oak Ridge and imposed a moratorium on releases at other sites. It looks as if regulated landfills will be the next stop for the contaminated metals, and that the Energy Department will have to eat a few hundred million dollars in disposal costs. A postscript: The Oak Ridge manager who orchestrated the BNFL recycling contract received a Presidential Meritorious Rank award in 1998, which cited his efforts to recycle the metal. The award carried a $10,000 honorarium. He retired in the summer of 1999, and is now leading a BNFL subsidiary, Westinghouse Government Services, which secured a contract to run Oak Ridge's Y-12 plant.

"Eating costs" is the bottom-line DOE concern, not the children of tomorrow.

Thanks for your careful study serving the community interests and presenting a model for responsible government and democratic decision making. It IS about ethics and personal integrity.

Best wishes,

Leuren Moret
Past President Association for Women Geoscientists