NRC: DOE Does Not Meet Land Ownership, Water Rights Requirements for Yucca Mountain Site

In the third part of a long-awaited safety evaluation report (SER) for the stalled Yucca Mountain permanent nuclear waste repository released today, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says the Department of Energy (DOE) fails to meet necessary requirements relating to ownership of land and water rights. 

Volume 4 (Administrative and Programmatic Requirements) of the five-part SER, documents the NRC staff’s evaluation to determine whether the DOE’s research and development, and performance confirmation programs, as well as other administrative controls, systems, and programs, meet applicable NRC requirements.

It contains the staff’s finding that most administrative and programmatic requirements in NRC regulations are met, except for certain requirements relating to ownership of land and water rights,” the regulatory body explained in a statement on Dec. 18.

“Specifically, DOE has not acquired ownership or jurisdiction over the land where the geologic repository operations area would be located, and the land is not free of significant encumbrances such as mining rights, deeds, rights-of-way or other legal rights. DOE also has not acquired water rights it determined are needed to accomplish the purpose of the geologic repository operations area.”

Another Volume in the Yucca Mountain Saga

Reflecting the Obama administration’s opposition to the Yucca Mountain 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 a three-judge panel 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, which states that 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.

Two Parts Remain

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 (General Information) was published in August 2010, and Volume 3 (Repository Safety After Permanent Closure) was issued this October. Volume 2 (Repository Safety Before Permanent Closure) and Volume 5 (License Specifications) will be published by the end of January 2015, as they are completed, the NRC said.

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