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Yucca Mountain Workers' Health Concerns Highlighted

A May 20 session at AIHce EXP 2019 explored heightened respiratory and radiation exposure hazards workers may face if Congress moves the High Level Nuclear Waste repository forward.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Workers at the Yucca Mountain Project in Nevada could be exposed to potentially serious respiratory and radiation hazards if the long-planned High Level Nuclear Waste repository is revived and advanced by Congress, two presenters explained in an educational session at this week's AIHce EXP 2019 conference and expo here.

Dr. William Culbreth, Ph.D., a nuclear and mechanical engineer who teaches in the UNLV Department of Mechanical Engineering, explained that the original plan for Yucca Mountain was to store 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel forever in steel containers buried about 1,000 feet below ground. That depth is still 1,000 feet above the water table at the arid site, which is located about 150 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The area receives only about 3.5 inches of rain per year on average.

Culbreth told a large crowd at the session that southern Nevada's population has exploded since surface studies began at Yucca Mountain in 1991. Unresolved issues include how to get the high level waste to Yucca Mountain from the many nuclear reactors where it is currently stored, volcanic and seismic activity in the area, and a national monument which was created recently in the path of a rail route that had been proposed back in the 1990s. Peak criticality, or the peak of the time when the spent fuel could go critical, is projected to be 250,000 years, and DOE currently projects that the site should be able to contain the hazardous materials for 1 million years.

Culbreth said challenges for Yucca Mountain Project workers include possible exposures when containers corrode, criticality concerns because of migration of groundwater through the site, and how to shield workers from radiation during placement of the containers in their alcoves. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does approve the site's license, Culbreth said he believes worker safety must be considered before construction and operations take place.

The second speaker, Dr. Jacob Paz, Ph.D., of Environment Inc. in Las Vegas, discussed groundwater issues and the dangers of workers' exposure to erionite, an asbestos-like material that is present in the soil in the area but is more carcinogenic than asbestos. Current plans for Yucca Mountain are to entomb 77,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, plus more than 200,000 tons of heavy metals, Paz said. "It's a huge amount of material. This material, if leaching to the surface, is not nuclear waste. It's a hazardous waste that you have to clean," he added.

Synergistic effects of exposure to various substances at the site should be studied, he said, adding that to assume that container corrosion will be negligible, as the U.S. Department of Energy does, is "nonsense."

Paz said DOE must revise its current Yucca Mountain Project erionite guidelines, exposure limit, and/or standard and should screen workers and their family members for adverse health effects.

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