NRC Deems Nuclear Waste Storage at Yucca Mountain Safe

The stalled Yucca Mountain permanent nuclear waste repository will meet regulatory requirements when permanently closed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has found in a long-awaited safety evaluation report (SER). 

The federal regulatory body on Oct. 16 issued Volume 3 of the five-part SER on the underground geologic nuclear waste repository proposed to be built in Nevada. Volume 3 covers the period after the repository would be permanently closed—a period defined to end at 1 million years after initial disposal. It finds that the Department of Energy’s repository design meets requirements for individual protection, human intrusion, and separate standards for protection of groundwater after the repository is permanently closed.

The report is “game-changing,” said Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chair of the Environment and the Economy Subcommittee, in a joint statement.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, meanwhile, called on the Senate to act on nuclear waste legislation she introduced last year that would establish an independent agency to address the nation’s stockpile of used nuclear fuel.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), however, has vowed to block any legislation that would advance the repository.

Reflecting the Obama administration’s opposition, the DOE in 2010 withdrew from the NRC its June 2008–submitted application to license the Nevada facility and moved to terminate the project. The NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board had initially denied the motion, but under the direction of the commission, suspended the proceeding until there were sufficient funds—more than the unspent $11 million remaining in its Nuclear Waste Fund—to make “meaningful progress.”

But a three-judge panel of at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in August 2013 ruled that the NRC was legally required to comply with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, a law passed by Congress in 1983 and which provides the NRC “shall consider” the DOE’s license application to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. As the federal court pointed out, the law also calls on the NRC to “issue a final decision approving or disapproving” the application to store nuclear waste at the repository within three years of its submission–or extend the deadline by an additional year if it issues a written report explaining the reason for the delay.

The NRC in November 2013 directed staff to finish the long-delayed SER, the key technical document of the NRC’s review of the Yucca Mountain application. It is to be published in five volumes.

Volume 1 (essentially the introduction) was published in August 2010. Volume 2 (Repository Safety Before Permanent Closure), Volume 4 (Administrative and Programmatic Requirements), and Volume 5 (License Specifications) will all be published by January 2015, as they are completed, the NRC said.

“A final licensing decision, should funds beyond those currently available be appropriated, could come only after completion of the safety evaluation report, a supplement to the Department of Energy’s environmental impact statement, hearings on contentions in the adjudication, and Commission review,” the regulatory agency said in a statement on Oct. 16.

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)