DOE downplays risk after earthquake near Yucca

By Ken Ritter, The Associated Press
Saturday June 15, 2002

LAS VEGAS — Federal officials insisted Friday that the site of a proposed national nuclear waste repository in the Nevada desert is safe, despite an early morning earthquake that rumbled nearby. 

No damage or injuries were reported after the magnitude 4.4 temblor struck at 5:40 a.m. near Little Skull Mountain. The epicenter is about 12 1/2 miles southeast of the Yucca Mountain site and 75 miles northwest of Las Vegas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colo. 

The quake was felt at the Nye County sheriff’s office in Pahrump, 40 miles to the southeast, but not in hotels on the Las Vegas Strip. 

About 100 scientists and employees found no damage Friday at Yucca Mountain, said Allen Benson, a federal Department of Energy spokesman in Las Vegas. 

However, the minor quake reverberated in Washington, D.C., where the Senate is due before July 26 to vote on whether to entomb highly radioactive waste at the site. 

“The earthquake is a wake-up call for the U.S. Senate,” declared Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who raised the specter of radioactivity contaminating groundwater if an earthquake were to strike an active Yucca Mountain repository. 

The House already has voted to support President Bush’s selection of Yucca Mountain to store the nation’s radioactive waste. 

“Today, we saw more proof that the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear dump site is not safe,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who along with Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., has been trying unsuccessfully to drum up 51 votes to block the project in the Senate. 

The Energy Department plans to bury 77,000 tons of spent commercial, industrial and military nuclear waste in a grid of underground tunnels beneath the ancient volcanic ridge. The site would remain radioactive for more than 10,000 years. 

Benson, at the Energy Department office in Las Vegas, released a statement calling the area “a known and studied geologic zone” that project scientists have monitored for 24 years. He said a magnitude 5.6 earthquake hit in 1992 in the same area — near Little Skull Mountain in the Nevada Test Site — but didn’t dislodge boulders at Yucca Mountain. 

“In fact, Yucca Mountain scientists have used earthquakes greater in magnitude than this morning’s quake to study and design a nuclear waste repository,” he said. “Scientific studies show that an underground repository at Yucca Mountain would perform safely in accordance with regulatory standards, including during an earthquake.” 

David von Seggern, a seismologist at the Nevada Seismological Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Friday’s earthquake came as no surprise because the entire state is seismically active. 

“Earthquakes have happened and will continue to happen in this area,” he said. 

Von Seggern said Yucca Mountain is in a six-mile zone in which scientists found no documented evidence of a temblor greater than magnitude 3 since the 1800s. UNR has been monitoring the site since 1978, he said. 

A quake of magnitude 4.4 or even 6.4 would not damage a well-designed nuclear repository, von Seggern said. But he declined to comment on the Energy Department declaration that the repository would be safe. 

Opponents of the project seized on the quake as a reason to reject Yucca Mountain. 

“If you’re out looking for sites, three things you want to avoid are earthquakes, the potential for volcanoes and contamination of a pristine and valuable aquifer,” said Judy Treichel, an executive director of the Las Vegas-based Nuclear Waste Task Force and an opponent of the project. “Yucca Mountain gives you all of those.”