NRC Completes Yucca Mountain Safety Evaluation Report

More than six and a half years after the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted its license application seeking authorization to build a geologic repository, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff published the final two volumes of the safety evaluation report (SER) on the Yucca Mountain site.

Released on Jan. 29, Volume 2 covers repository safety before permanent closure and Volume 5 covers proposed conditions on the construction authorization and probable subjects of license specifications.

In the end, the staff’s recommendation is that the commission should not authorize construction of the repository because the DOE has not met certain land and water rights requirements, and because a supplement to the DOE’s environmental impact statement has not yet been completed.

The conclusion is not a surprise. Volume 4 of the SER—released on Dec. 18, 2014—noted that the DOE had not acquired ownership or jurisdiction over the land where the geologic repository operations area would be located, and that the land was not free of significant encumbrances, such as mining rights, deeds, rights-of-way, or other legal rights. It also stated that the DOE had not acquired water rights it had determined were needed to accomplish the purpose of the geologic repository operations area.

Publication of the final two volumes completes the NRC’s technical safety review of the DOE’s Yucca Mountain application. It has been a long, and at times controversial, process. The application was officially submitted on June 3, 2008, after more than two decades of site studies by the DOE.

NRC staff issued Volume 1 of the SER, covering general information, on Aug. 23, 2010. But after the DOE moved to withdraw the application and Congress stopped appropriating funds for the NRC’s review, the agency closed out its application review and published three technical evaluation reports documenting the staff’s technical analyses to that point but making no regulatory conclusions.

Following an Aug. 13, 2013, decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the NRC was directed to continue its legally obligated review of the Yucca Mountain license application. On Oct. 16, 2014, the agency issued Volume 3 of the SER, covering repository safety after permanent closure.

Volume 3 reported that the repository design met the requirements for individual protection, human intrusion, and separate standards for protection of groundwater after the repository is permanently closed—a period defined to end at 1 million years after initial disposal. Some members of Congress called the announcement “game-changing” at the time.

Completion of the SER does not represent an agency decision on whether to authorize construction. A final licensing decision could only come after completion of a supplement to the DOE’s environmental impact statement, hearings on contentions in the adjudication (of which there were nearly 300 filed by various parties contesting the application), and NRC review.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)