Sandia LabNews

Sandians ready for next phase of Yucca Mountain project

For Sandians at the Yucca Mountain Project, ‘the real challenge is ahead of us’

It’s been an interesting year for a contingent of Sandians, hunkered down below the political horizon and working hard on Nevada’s Yucca Mountain Project. Although this fight is far from over, Sandia’s efforts have earned high marks from a number of sources.

"This is a perfect example of exceptional service in the national interest," says Andrew Orrell, who heads Sandia’s Yucca Mountain Project Dept. 6850. "There are not many programs that are singularly reviewed with such scrutiny and directly approved by the President himself and by the Congress."

The process of recommending the site to President Bush from Secretary of Energy Abraham and entertaining a debate in Congress over the issue has taken much of the year. But July 9, the US Senate added its approval to that of the House, voting in favor of proceeding with the project. The congressional joint resolution was signed as expected by President Bush July 23, effectively designating the Yucca Mountain site for development as a proposed repository for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste.

The action clears the way for the next process — submission of a license application by DOE to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to obtain construction authorization. The overall process is expected to take several years and will be played out to a background of lawsuits and protests from various interests opposed to the repository, particularly the state of Nevada.

"We were confident that the project would be approved based on the technical arguments, but considering the significant political and legal maneuvering prior to the vote, we couldn’t be certain of the outcome," Andrew says of the recent stamp of approval. "It was a significant moment for us and we’ve tried to emphasize that in our employee recognition efforts. This decision was based on two decades of work and there are literally hundreds of people at Sandia who contributed to it and who should be rightfully proud of the accomplishment."

The challenge ahead

While morale is high among Sandians on the project, Andrew cautions, "We fully recognize the future environment is going to be stressful. The real challenge is ahead of us with the preparation and defense of the license application. There is a tremendous amount of work ahead."

"Our customers are very demanding and rightly so," says Cliff Howard, acting manager of Repository Test and Analysis Dept. 6855. "They are under a lot of pressure to deliver on schedule high-quality products that can stand up to the scrutiny of oversight groups and critical review organizations."

With its experience base from the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) and technical support from matrixed staff in other Labs organizations (including Geosciences Center 6100), Sandia is making a difference in the Nevada project. However, unlike WIPP — where Sandia led the scientific effort — this work is being done under DOE’s management and operations contractor, the Bechtel-SAIC Company, supported by participants from several national labs, the US Geological Survey, and commercial contractors.

"We’ve been very successful in transferring our expertise and experience from WIPP to this project. Sandians are now routinely called upon for discussions regarding successful licensing strategies for technical, managerial, and organizational issues," Andrew says. "It is a great pleasure to know our Sandia staff have this kind of impact on these first-of-kind projects." Sandia was able to directly contribute to a substantial number of key documents used by Secretary Abraham to recommend the site to the President this year, he adds.

For the past two decades, Sandia has assisted in the project’s site characterization effort in a number of specific areas including technical management, field and lab-scale testing, data collection, modeling and analysis for both engineered and natural systems, and long-term performance assessment.

Sandia’s present workforce on the Yucca Mountain Project includes about 35 technical staff members, 15 support staff, and four managers, distributed between Las Vegas and Albuquerque. Present Labs budget for the project is about $14 million. Fifteen of the staff and two managers are currently in Las Vegas.

Key Labs roles

The Las Vegas contingent is co-located with Bechtel-SAIC in Las Vegas, where several Sandia team members hold key management and technical roles in the project organization. Sandia has earned kudos from the managing and operations contractor for its technical contribution, quality practices and performance on cost and schedule.

Cliff’s department (6855) is located in Las Vegas and focuses on laboratory and field-testing to supply data needs for Sandia and other project organizations. "Our work in testing always demands innovative engineering," he says of the many first-of-a-kind, high-visibility tests his group conducts.

Albuquerque technical staff do everything from analysis of field test data to interpreting results of million-year simulations of the entire repository system. "The Albuquerque and Las Vegas departments are really seamless and work well as a team, Andrew says. "The majority of our technical effort is accomplished in Albuquerque, while other key efforts are staffed in Las Vegas."

Hong-Nian Jow’s Subsystems Performance Assessment Dept. 6852 in Albuquerque works closely with Cliff’s staff and other project participants to take experimental data and build it into process and systems models of the natural and engineered barrier systems. Uncertainties are inherent in estimates and observations from a few years of test data extrapolated to tens of thousands of years in model simulations. Models are often simplifications of vastly more detailed information developed by field and laboratory testing and complex component modeling, explains Hong-Nian. "We need to be able to describe the technical basis for our models, defend their appropriateness and be clear about acknowledging the uncertainty in our results."

Finally, these models are adapted for use in various ways by Peter Swift’s Total Systems Performance Assessment Dept. 6851. Developing a scientifically sound analysis of a system as large and complex as Yucca Mountain is a multilayered process, Peter explains. "Work at each level of the process must meet the highest standards, and must be integrated carefully with the upstream and downstream users within the project."

Peter sees the greatest challenge for his group as "one of communication. Skeptical technical audiences, both within the project and externally, reasonably ask why they should trust our estimates of system-level performance over hundreds of thousands of years. Sound programmatic decisions about the site should be based on a full understanding of our uncertainty about how it will perform. We need to communicate that understanding to a broad range of audiences."