Yucca Mountain Legacy Water Sampling Project in Detail

Download Element Analysis Assessment 3/11/05    Brochure  Sampling Site Map

Funded by the Citizen's Monitoring and Technical Assessment Fund

Project Summary              

From November 2004 to March 2006the Yucca Mountain Legacy Project (Phase 1)  identifies the key isotopic constituents and daughter products that are most likely to remain from nuclear testing in the Pahute Mesa area of the Nevada Test Site, as well as those most likely to escape containment from the Yucca Mountain Repository system. Through high-quality isotopic water analysis, we established baseline data for what the situation is now, before any new contaminants are introduced. Our purpose was to:

  1. Establish a sound technical baseline so that in the future the problem is quantifiable;
  2. Set a precedent and leverage for ongoing isotopic water analysis so that impacts are predictable and therefore preventable;
  3. Involve others in the next phases of Yucca Mt. Legacy Project, such as air, soil and vegetation sampling;
  4. Provide a working model for other communities and groups who may face similar circumstances if DOE moves forward with new nuclear weapons facilities.

The following detail is provided from the project proposal, written in 2004. The project was conducted as described.

Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository: Water Contamination Impacts

The proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository is located in southwest Nevada, north of Death Valley National Park, and just 17 miles from the California border. Its purpose is to contain 77,000 tons of used commercial reactor fuel rods and military high-level nuclear waste in below ground tunnels. If Yucca Mountain (YM) becomes the nation’s High Level Waste (HLW) repository, there is a high likelihood that the groundwater under YM will become contaminated with radionuclides. Large uncertainties exist as to when these radionuclides will appear in drinking and irrigation water wells. Even within the parameters of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing, there could still remain uncertainties large enough to warrant concern for future generations. This is particularly germane, due to the ‘first of its kind’ nature of the Yucca Mountain Project (YMP), where unanticipated processes could arise impacting the rate of radionuclide release.

It has already been demonstrated to the best of Dept. of Energy (DOE) science, and independently verified by the State of Nevada, that YM provides less than 1% containment of the waste over the current 10,000 year licensing period. Further, it has been shown that once the waste containers have been breached, radionuclides could be expected to reach regional wells within 500 to 1,000 years. Thus, premature container failure could result in substantial plumes of radionuclides in the YM aquifer after the closure period. While the DOE claims the waste will be retrievable for at least the first 300 years after waste emplacement, there is no planned procedure for retrieval once the repository is sealed. Despite the DOE’s plan for ongoing monitoring after closure, once monitoring equipment in YM fails there will be no warning of container failure until radionuclides are detected 18 kilometers offsite (at the point of compliance to the EPA exposure standards) without any recourse to arrest the problem.

Until recently, the area had a relatively low population density. However, Las Vegas NV, about 90 miles away, is now the fastest growing city in the United States. Pahrump NV, about 40 miles away, is the fastest growing rural town. All this growth requires water, and the most plentiful water in question comes from the Yucca Mountain area. In fact, in the next few years, water grabs in the region are likely to be the hottest political issue.

Yucca Mountain Impacts on California

Impacts on Californians, only 17 miles away, have been virtually ignored. Although water is likely to be the primary method of transport for escaping radioactive particles over time, and surface and ground water appears to flow south or southwest into California, the repository site has been solely characterized as a Nevada concern. Yucca Mountain is centered in the apex of the vast Amargosa River watershed (see map), the third largest river in the western U.S.. Surface water travels directly to California via the Amargosa River drainage and then doubles back (see map) to evaporate into wind-born particulate in the Badwater basin, Death Valley’s lowest point. Deeper aquifer layers are now thought to get to California more directly, by traveling underneath the Funeral Mountains and surfacing in a range of springs on their southwest flank. California’s Inyo County has been conducting a joint study with Nevada’s neighboring Nye County to determine direction of water flow through test wells and springs. However, to date, isotopic testing for radionuclide contamination from the Test Site has been minimal.

DOE’s Past Performance in Water Monitoring of Nevada Test Site Contaminants

Our study will also be important to future generations who will be downgradient of the Pahute Mesa underground nuclear weapons testing area. In an earlier round, the organization Citizen Alert received MTA funding to assess the viability of the existing DOE water monitoring system for the Nevada Test Site.

Since 1962, many of the over 1,000 underground nuclear explosions at the Test Site were detonations below the water table. For many years the DOE has assumed that the radioisotopes released in underground detonations become essentially trapped in the vitrified rock mass that results from the enormous heat released in these explosions. However, the discovery of tritium and plutonium away from the detonation site clearly shows that the DOE’s assumption was false.

The likely scenario is that plumes of radionuclides exist from each underground test shot from a leaching of the radionuclides out of the vitrified rock. The extent of this leaching and the travel distance of these plumes is unknown at this time. In the Citizen Alert report, it is shown that the DOE has not properly placed water monitoring wells in a judicious manner so as to guarantee intercepting potential radioactive plumes from the Pahute Mesa. Currently, the DOE has no plans to characterize a single potential radioactive plume, leaving the safety of the people downgradient at risk. Since there is no feasible method to clean up the radiation-laced water, the alternative is for the DOE to provide an early warning system that will detect radionuclides advancing towards fresh water wells with sufficient time to take action to protect the public by either importing water, or relocating residents.

Why is the problem important or significant?

The Yucca Mountain Repository provides a very unique situation, in terms of health and habitat safety. Most nuclear site communities never had the opportunity to establish baseline or background data before contaminating activities occurred. Our region is poised between nuclear eras. Past nuclear testing contamination must be factored into any future risk scenarios. Future contamination will be the result of either the movement of existing contamination to new off-site areas, the introduction of new contaminants through Yucca Mt. activities, or a combination of the two. If contamination is detected in the region in the future, without accurate baseline data to establish what is Test Site sourced and what may be from Yucca Mountain, no real risk assessment or dose reconstruction can take place. This is a rare opportunity to protect health and habitat before it’s too late that should not be allowed to go to waste. An important factor in the need for this work is anticipating the lack of attention the DOE will grant to establishing a baseline. If the DOE’s past history of nuclear worker safety and exposure tracking records are any indication of future behavior, it is likely that unless pressed the DOE will not implement a detailed program of sampling or conduct needed health surveys. In the report by Physicians for Social Responsibility, "Dead Reckoning," it is shown that the DOE’s nuclear worker health and exposure histories were fractious, making future epidemiological analysis very difficult to impossible.

What is the project intended to accomplish?

The purpose of the Yucca Mountain Legacy Project is to fill a vital gap by providing future generations with important tools to safeguard their health from potential exposure to radionuclide contamination and subsequent impacts on habitat and health. In addition to its archival function, the baseline study is a proactive step to call attention to the need for exposure and health histories for communities downgradient of Yucca Mountain and the Nevada Test Site, so future generations are able discern whether illness had resulted from radionuclide contamination from YM and/or the NTS. Even more important is establishing a precedent for concern, to ensure an ongoing sampling and analysis regimen is installed that would also provide early warning and allow for needed remedial action, thus preventing radionuclide induced illness.

1. In light of the reasonable expectation that groundwater will be the primary path for radionuclide migration off-site, our top priority is establishing a baseline for key water-born contaminants in the closest accessible off-site locations for comparison to future water supplies.

2. We will begin the process of establishing a viable regional citizen’s oversight group for the Yucca Mountain Repository. An initial role could be advocacy for ongoing water analysis.

What are the specific objectives of the review or analysis?

HOME plans to use our baseline analysis to advocate for continuous water sampling and subsequent radionuclide analysis. This will allow for exposure and dose information to be tracked over time to fully realize potential health implications to downgradient communities. It is unclear whether there will be detailed water sampling and analysis beyond what will be required to determine EPA YM protection standard compliance. Thus, our baseline study will provide leverage by demonstrating citizen concern regarding future radionuclide exposure with a solid technical basis. Through our report, a clear path will be forged which maps the important contaminants to test for and why, the sites which are most appropriate, and the next steps the DOE should take to monitor movement of known prior contamination.

What outcomes do you expect?

We hope to find and document uncontaminated water samples at all sites, and identify the pattern of illness which represents the health baseline due to existing environmental conditions. The entire study is unprecedented, so the outcome is unknown. The strength of this project is that, while it deals with known contamination as well as future contamination, it offers a proactive approach to safeguard health and habitat before it is to late.

What are the specific methods that will be used to conduct the review and/or analysis?

The first half of the project entails each team member reviewing existing data in great detail. This research will produce the best plan for the water sampling program and the health surveys. The second period will be spent in sample and data collection; the third in writing and distributing the final report, and defining the best strategy to archive the data and build an oversight team to use the information to best advantage.

Specific tasks the project staff and experts will conduct.

Jennifer O. Viereck, HOME staff:

1. At all times: Handling all grant and project administration, accounting and record-keeping, and working with MTA Fund and fiscal agent. Submitting required 3 month reports to MTA.

2. Sept. 04-Feb 05: Communicating with Inyo County and Nye County government on existing ‘AffectedUnit of Government’ studies on area groundwater and access to sampling sites. With team, making finalchoices about sampling contaminants.

3. Reviewing previous health study materials and data from the NTS region. Developing health study format and standards through consultation with Duckwater and Ely Shoshone tribal members, and researchers at the University of Las Vegas. Working with regional community groups, tribes, town councils, and Death Valley Chamber of Commerce to maximize distribution and collection of health study materials.

4. March 05-May 05:Assisting team with site visit and sampling.

5. June 05-August 05: With team, deciding on appropriate repository for our baseline information for future generations. With John Hadder, defining next steps for Phase 2 of the Yucca Mt. Legacy Project, (including adding air, vegetation and soil sampling), developing the capacity for ongoing isotopic monitoring of the selected sampling sites by an appropriate agency, and establishing a citizen’s oversight group for Yucca Mountain. Assembling final report and writing portion of report based on health study results and regional information. Overseeing distribution of report and archival data.

John Hadder, Chemist and Yucca Mountain Specialist:

1. Sept. 04-Feb 05: Consultation with additional regional and national experts and review of previous groundwater studies at nuclear weapons sites, including INEEL, Hanford WA, Savannah River, NC, and the Beatty NV plutonium plume from the toxic waste dump. Developing the connections with Citizen Alert’s previous MTA study of DOE inadequacies in monitoring groundwater contamination of other areas of the Nevada Test Site. Working with the rest of the team on establishing final sampling site selection and sampling contaminants.

2. March 05-May 05: Assisting team with site visit and sampling.

3. June 05-August 05: Writing portion of report based on links with Citizen Alert’s previous MTA study of DOE inadequacies in monitoring groundwater contamination of other areas of the Nevada Test Site.

With Jennifer, defining next steps for the Yucca Mt. Legacy Project, establishing the need for ongoing isotopic monitoring, and establishing a citizen’s oversight group for Yucca Mountain. With team, deciding on appropriate repository for our baseline information for future generations.

George Rice, Groundwater Hydrologist:

1. Sept. 04-Feb 05: Consult with additional regional and national experts, analysis of existing hydrological information about the area in question, including past USGS and DOE studies, and maps and other information. Working with the rest of the team on sampling site selection and sampling contaminants.

2. March 05-May 05:Site visit and actual sampling, submission of samples to laboratory for analysis.

3. June 05-August 05: Write portion of report based on sample analysis and other criteria.

Water Baseline Study

1. The first step is a historical document review, which will be mostly DOE work on the groundwater system and its components. There already exists a good survey of historical information from the Citizen Alert report that was done by Dennis Weber. Further, the DOE has extensive data from the Yucca Mountain Project on groundwater movement and content. DOE EIS and other technical documents contain information regarding radionuclide inventories and expected radionuclide releases.

2. We will consult with Inyo and Nye County staff to review their data on their "Early Warning" wells and sampling program, which will provide valuable water content data.

3. We will do a media search for relevant information that the press has acquired over the years.

4. And, finally besides Dennis Weber, we will consult with other state of Nevada and California hydrologists to ferret out other sources of information not already obtained.

In the review process, we will be focusing on information about the composition of the water generally, and whether any radiological data exists for down gradient sources. We wish to correlate the DOE's data on water use, before we apply it to our work.

Radionuclide Selection: There are several factors that HOME has considered in developing the preliminary radionuclide list for analysis: radionuclide inventory in the waste, content and concentration; naturally occurring radionuclides to establish background levels; mobility of radionuclides in regional aquifer; health consequences of various radionuclides; analogue DOE sites where radionuclides have been found offsite; cost and efficient use of available resources.

Why is the proposed approach effective for solving the problem(s) to be addressed?

Our primary problem is the future movement of radiological contamination from the Nevada Test Site, or the introduction of new contamination through Yucca Mountain activities. Our approach:

  1. Establishes a sound technical baseline so that in the future the problem is quantifiable;
  2. Sets a precedent and leverage for ongoing sampling and analysis so that impacts of the problem are predictable and therefore preventable;
  3. Establishes an ongoing oversight group to maximize the usefulness of the work done D. Distribution Plan (if proposed)
  4. What are the objectives of the information distribution effort?
  5. Provide awareness of our baseline data and advocate for ongoing appropriate water analysis;
  6. Involve others in next phases of Yucca Mt. Legacy Project, such as air, soil and vegetation sampling;
  7. Provide future generations with baseline data that will be viable and available;
  8. Provide a working model for other communities and groups who may face similar circumstances if DOE moves forward with new nuclear weapons facilities.

How will you disseminate information about the results and impacts of the project?

Our report will be distributed electronically through the HOME, Citizen Alert and MTA websites. Limited hard copies will be available to organizations and affected units of government working on Yucca Mountain and similar issues. The most difficult question will be choosing the best archive for providing data to future generations. News of the study will be released to numerous list-serves, media, and regional meetings.