Go to Home Page

Key Issues Nuclear Energy Issues Yucca Mountain Water and Energy Subcommittee

Testimony to Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development
March 15, 2004

Testimony of Gene E. Runkle,
Senior Safety Advisor,
Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management
U.S. Department of Energy

Printer Friendly


Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I am Gene Runkle, Senior Safety Advisor to the Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM). I am also the Program Manager for the Yucca Mountain Silicosis Screening Program. Thank you for the opportunity to testify at this hearing and to provide information about the Silicosis Screening Program.

Management at all levels of the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management is committed to providing a safe work place for our workers. Establishing a safety conscious work environment is our commitment to an employee’s right to raise concerns without fear of retaliation, to self-identification of issues, to prompt action to address any issues and concerns, and to continuous improvement of all processes. We are continuously improving our safety program, as evidenced by accomplishments such as the certification in 2000 of our Integrated Safety Management System, and the award in 2003 of Star Status in the Department’s Voluntary Protection Program. A safety conscious work environment is the cornerstone of our commitment to protect worker health and safety and the public.

As you are aware, concerns about worker exposures to airborne crystalline silica generally relate to work performed at the Yucca Mountain Exploratory Studies Facility in the early to mid-1990s. During this period, there was active mining of a five-mile tunnel to provide access, for testing purposes, to the geologic strata where spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste would be emplaced in a repository. This work was performed by a firm that has completed its work and is no longer associated with the Yucca Mountain Project. To determine working conditions and practices during that period, we have reviewed some 400 documents associated with tunnel mining operations, personal monitoring data, and respiratory protection. In addition, we are aggressively evaluating the risks of worker exposure to silica from Yucca Mountain Project activities from the mid-1990s up to the present time and intend to continue into the future.

Specific concerns have been raised about potential worker exposures to elevated levels of silica during tunnel mining and other underground operations in the 1990s. The Department has taken these concerns seriously and has confronted the issues in a straightforward manner, and we will continue to do so. We have commended the former employees who raised this concern, and we have initiated a medical screening program based upon the broadest reasonable assumption of potential exposures. We have also made extensive efforts to notify all current and former Yucca Mountain workers about the screening program. We have been candid in our responses to questions on this issue and in our other communications, acknowledging what we do not know and committing to address potential health effects on former and current workers from their work on the Yucca Mountain Project.


In September 2003, a former Yucca Mountain Project employee expressed a concern to the DOE Office of Inspector General that there had been overexposure to respirable silica and carcinogenic substances during tunnel mining operations from 1993 through 1998. In the fall of 2003, OCRWM and the Office of Environment, Safety and Health analyzed exposure-monitoring data, which indicated that allowable levels of respirable silica were exceeded for some operations from 1993 through 1997. Monitoring data for erionite (a known carcinogen), other fibrous zeolites, and diesel exhaust also were analyzed; however, respirable silica was determined to be the likely primary hazard for workers.

Silica is one of the minerals that naturally exist in desert soils and in the rocks at Yucca Mountain. It can become airborne during dust-producing activities like tunnel boring operations. If inhaled, silica can collect in the respiratory system and, with long-term exposure, can cause a chronic, progressive lung disease called silicosis.

Exposure to silica and dust is controlled through engineering controls including ventilation, good work practices, and personal protective equipment such as respirators. The level of control achieved is determined by monitoring the air for silica concentration. Unlike other hard-rock mining operations that use water for dust suppression, the Exploratory Studies Facility tunnel was bored with minimal use of water to ensure scientific integrity of the tests that would be performed there. To compensate, special air pickups and filtration systems were designed for the tunnel and mining equipment. Operators were not satisfied with the performance of these systems in dealing with difficulties encountered during actual boring operations and enhanced the systems multiple times to improve dust control.

Prior to the beginning of tunnel boring operations in 1994, safety programs were in place. Respiratory protection was made available to Yucca Mountain workers; however, between 1992 and 1996, requirements for its use were not consistently applied. In 1996, the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management issued a stop work order, established a rigorous respiratory protection program, and enhanced monitoring of the work environment. Also in 1996, ventilation in the tunnel was improved to better control dust levels. Our records indicate that requirements for the proper use of respiratory protection have been in effect since 1996 and have been rigorously enforced.

In 1998, we established the Silica Protection Program to provide ongoing, annual medical surveillance of current tunnel workers. This program continues today, and we are actively monitoring our workers’ health. We meet the standards for worker safety as outlined in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Special Emphasis Program and in National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommendations, and our medical surveillance program meets or exceeds federal standards. Employees enrolled in the Silica Protection Program receive X-rays that are evaluated by radiology specialists, lung function evaluations, and physical exams. The Silica Protection Program has identified two cases of silicosis to date. Both of these individuals worked at Yucca Mountain and were also involved in other mining activities.

The Silica Protection Program also addresses erionite, a fibrous material found in volcanic and sedimentary rocks. The respiratory protection provided to workers is equipped with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which filter 99.97 percent of all particles 0.3 microns in size or larger. This level is sufficient to filter out the bulk of airborne particulates found in the Exploratory Studies Facility, including erionite, silica dust, and radon progeny particulate radionuclides. An extremely small quantity of erionite was found during mining operations – a fracture coating one millimeter thick. Mining operations were carefully planned to avoid erionite deposits that are known to exist in the Yucca Mountain strata below the current tunnel. Regulatory standards for erionite do not exist, so erionite levels are compared to regulatory standards for asbestos, which is a similar carcinogen. Erionite exposure levels during and since the mining operations have not exceeded the asbestos regulatory standards.

In drilling locations where scientists identified that erionite may be present, the Department of Energy utilized a self-imposed erionite control protocol to protect workers. This protocol included protective clothing, respirators, and erionite monitoring and is similar to that utilized by industry to protect workers from asbestos. Any potential health impacts from erionite would be picked up by the ongoing medical surveillance and screening programs.

We firmly believe we have a sound program in place to protect our workers and provide a safe working environment. However, to provide assurance in this matter, we recently arranged for a team of industrial hygienists to perform an independent review of the current Silica Protection Program and other aspects of our industrial hygiene program at the Yucca Mountain Project. Certified industrial hygienists from Bechtel National, Inc.; the Department of Energy Office of Worker Protection Policy and Programs; Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure, Inc.; and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted the assessment. They determined that the program is sound but recommended various managerial and technical enhancements that we are now considering.


Now I will provide details on the actions OCRWM has taken in response to concerns about historical silica exposures.

OCRWM contracted with the University of Cincinnati, which has considerable experience in performing similar screening programs, to establish a one-time, independent medical screening for current and former workers. On January 15, 2004, the Silicosis Screening Program was announced, and a toll-free information line operated by the University of Cincinnati became operational. The Program is voluntary, available at no cost to workers, and open to all current and former workers who spent 20 or more days underground in a year. The University of Cincinnati leads a consortium that includes Zenith Administrators; Duke University Medical Center; and the Center to Protect Workers’ Rights, which has been instrumental in working with labor organizations to facilitate worker notification.

The screening program is open to workers who may have been exposed to airborne silica in the tunnel at various times during tunnel mining operations – an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 individuals (1992-present). We will not know who has been affected until the medical screening is complete. After the initial screening, there will be an evaluation to determine what additional actions should be taken.

To date, approximately 2,400 letters notifying current and former workers about the program have been mailed, and approximately 240 individuals have signed up to participate. Work history interviews have started, and the medical exams will begin shortly. A few non-employees have also called the information line. We welcome anyone who visited the underground facilities multiple times within a year to call and obtain information, but I want to stress that we do not anticipate that any non-workers would have been impacted, due to their restricted access to work areas and the short duration of their visits.

Since the Silicosis Screening Program was announced in January, two additional concerns have been raised.

The State of Nevada Environmental Protection Division conducted an inspection of the “muck pile” outside the Exploratory Studies Facility tunnel in response to Congressional inquiries about the possibility of silica dust blowing off the pile. The Environmental Protection Division conducted an air quality permit inspection on February 12, 2004. The site was found to be in compliance. The Yucca Mountain Project has undergone five air quality inspections since 1994 and has been found to be in compliance each time. In addition, the Yucca Mountain Project conducts its own samplings, using an air monitoring network throughout the site.

A second topic of concern is the alleged falsification of data in the 1996 timeframe. On February 18, 2004, Dr. Chu, OCRWM Director, requested that the DOE Office of the Inspector General investigate these allegations, and OCRWM management requested all employees to respond to any requests for information from the Inspector General. Dr. Chu also requested that the Inspector General determine why DOE was not notified of this former employee’s statements when they were originally made. We are awaiting completion of the Inspector General investigation and are committed to taking appropriate action in response to their findings.


If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorizes construction of a repository at Yucca Mountain, an extensive network of tunnels would be mined to create areas for waste emplacement. We are looking ahead to this mining operation and taking steps to ensure we can perform it safely. The Department of Energy and Bechtel SAIC Company, LLC, are planning safety and health and industrial hygiene programs for the construction period to address the significantly increased level of work that would accompany future activities. The Department is currently utilizing the internationally recognized expertise of the Colorado School of Mines to advise on emerging and innovative excavation and dust control technologies that could be used at Yucca Mountain. Additionally, we will continue to use the expertise of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for advice and recommendations on enhancing our health protection programs.


In summary, the Department of Energy identified that allowable levels for respirable silica were exceeded during some tunnel operations in the early to mid-1990s and implemented more comprehensive silica protection processes. In response to employee concerns on potential exposure to silica, we have established a Silicosis Screening Program with the University of Cincinnati for current and former workers. We will continue to protect our workers through a safety conscious work environment, which emphasizes self-identification of issues and concerns; prompt response to issues; and continuous improvement. Future operations will build upon this commitment, and we will continue to implement a safety conscious work environment to the benefit of our workers and the public.

Thank you. I would be pleased to answer any questions.