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WASHINGTON -- A volcanic eruption at Yucca Mountain could do more damage than previously thought, possibly forcing radioactive waste from its burial site to the surface, according to a new study. If long-dormant volcanoes near the prospective high-level nuclear waste dump sprang back to life, molten rock moving at up to 600 mph could fill the repository deep beneath the Nevada desert within hours, said an article in the July issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. Intense heat and pressure could cause some canisters of spent nuclear fuel that are to be buried at Yucca Mountain to rupture and allow radioactive material to flow toward the surface, the article said. "It can potentially affect a large number of waste canisters," wrote a team of English, Dutch and American scientists that developed computer models to assess the risk of a volcanic eruption. Seven dead volcanoes are within 27 miles but the last eruption was 80,000 years ago. Project scientists calculate that the chance of one occurring within the waste repository over the next 10,000 years is 1 in 70 million. Previous government studies have said volcanic eruptions would do little damage to the site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. But project scientists who commented on a draft of the new study said it presents a potentially useful model for evaluating what could happen if an eruption were to occur. President Bush last week designated Yucca Mountain as the nation's lone long-term waste repository.
Is Yucca Mountain a Safe Place to Store Nuclear Waste?
In spite of the incredible investment in state-of-the-art scientific studies aimed at evaluating the suitability of Yucca Mountain for long-term storage of waste, considerable uncertainty remains.
Two outstanding natural-hazard problems resist simple resolution.
There is a possibility that earthquake shaking and associated ground breakage could release radioactive waste to the environment.
There is also a possibility that a volcanic eruption could disrupt the storage site and release radioactive waste to the environment.