NRC Directs Staff to Proceed with Yucca Mountain License Review

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Monday directed agency staff to complete the long-delayed safety evaluation report (SER) for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) license application to build the Yucca Mountain permanent waste repository.

Reflecting the Obama administration’s opposition to the repository, 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 in a key decision this August, a divided three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit obliged the NRC, notwithstanding funding challenges, 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.

Significantly, the Nov. 18 order directing NRC staff to finish the SER calls on the NRC secretary and other agency staff to enter “thousands of documents from the old Licensing Support Network (LSN) into the NRC’s [non-public Agency-wide Documents Access and Management System (ADAMS)] documents database so they will be available to the staff and eventually, assuming the availability of funding, to the public,” said NRC spokesperson Dave McIntyre. It also calls on the “DOE to complete a supplement to its environmental impact statement on Yucca Mountain as the NRC staff found to be necessary back in 2008,” he said.

The order does not, however, restart the adjudicatory hearing on the application, which remains suspended or signal that a licensing decision is imminent, McIntyre said. “Before a final licensing decision can be made, the adjudicatory hearing must be completed, and the [NRC] must perform its own review.”

The SER is the key technical document of the NRC’s review of the Yucca Mountain application. It was to be published in five volumes: Volume 1 (essentially the introduction, according to McIntyre) was published in August 2010. Subsequent volumes were not completed before the review was shut down. “They were eventually published as ‘technical evaluation reports,’ which are less formal documents that don’t contain regulatory conclusions about the proposed repository,” he added.

In early October, the agency staff recommended completing the safety evaluation report, which it said “could inform any national repository decisions, and the scientific methods and analyses could enlighten any future repository reviews.”

In another legal victory for states mired in the nation’s nuclear waste storage gridlock, the D.C. Circuit in June 2012 vacated the NRC’s Waste Confidence Decision (WCD), finding that an NRC ruling that said spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s power plants could be stored as long as 60 years after a plant’s operating license expires violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The court also ordered the agency to consider the potential environmental consequences of the federal government’s failure to build a permanent repository and requires it to analyze the environmental impacts of potential leaks and fires in used fuel storage pools.

Following that decision, the NRC put on hold all final licensing decisions until a new rule is finalized. The NRC this September issued a proposed rule concluding that storage in used fuel pools is feasible for 60 years after the licensed life of a reactor and in dry casks for indefinite periods, assuming that dry storage systems can be replaced every 100 years. A final rule is expected in September 2014, and the agency is now holding public meeting to seek comments on the proposed rule.

In a related development, the NEI on Tuesday urged the NRC to stop using the term waste confidence and rename the rule it is updating. “It is a historical artifact and does not provide a useful description of the agency’s analysis and conclusions on repository availability and the continued safe and environmentally sound storage of used fuel,” Ellen Ginsberg, NEI’s vice president and general counsel, said.

“To avoid the confusion and mischaracterization that the term waste confidence creates, we recommend that the rule be retitled ‘Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel for the Period After Licensed Term of Operation,’” she said.

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