Press On with Yucca Mountain, House Members Urge NRC, DOE in Hearing

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy on Tuesday pushed top officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Energy (DOE) to act immediately to restart the Yucca Mountain repository licensing process.

Only two witnesses testified at the hearing on how the Obama administration intends to revive a stalled license application for the permanent nuclear waste repository in Nevada: NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane and Pete Lyons, the DOE’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy. The hearing comes barely a month after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a 2-1 decision directed the NRC to continue its legally obligated review of the license application submitted by the DOE in 2008.

NRC: Final Decision on Yucca Mt. Cumbersome

The NRC’s Macfarlane confirmed the NRC has taken some action to comply with the court’s decision but noted, “the full nature of the direction we will take remains under Commission review.” However, before the NRC can make a final decision on the repository, its Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) must hear and rule on some 288 contentions, she said. Then, among other steps the agency must take before making its decision are reconstituting the Licensing Support Network—the NRC’s online database of license-related document—and possibly dealing with appeals of ASLB rulings.

She also noted that the agency had about $11.1 million (and an additional $2.5 million of obligated unexpended Nuclear Waste Fund money) available to work on the Yucca Mountain project, but that was not sufficient “to complete all of the necessary steps in this licensing process,” she said.

One focus of the hearing was the status of the NRC’s partially complete, five-volume safety evaluation report (SER) on the proposed facility. According to industry group the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), one volume of the SER has been released. The milestone to complete the SER “represents one, albeit significant, element in the overall process required by law and/or regulations,” Macfarlane said. “Our staff is now gathering budget information to facilitate Commission decisions regarding the path forward.”

DOE: Obama Administration Committed to Nuclear, Waste Storage

The DOE’s Lyons emphasized that the Obama administration was committed to its obligations to manage and dispose of used nuclear fuel—and to nuclear power, because it is a carbon-free energy source that fits well with the president’s climate change mitigation priority. Countering allegations that the administration stymied plans for the permanent waste facility, he said: “When this Administration took office, the timeline for opening Yucca Mountain had already been pushed back by two decades with no end in sight. It was clear that stalemate could continue indefinitely.” Rather than continuing to spend billions of dollars more “on a project that faces such strong opposition,” the Obama administration held more faith in a pathway similar to that laid out by the Blue Ribbon Commission earlier this year—“a consent-based solution … that meets the country’s national and energy security needs and has the potential to gain the necessary public acceptance.”

Since the August federal court decision, the NRC had issued an order to invite all participants in the licensing proceedings to provide, by Sept. 30, their views on how the agency should proceed. “The Department is carefully considering how to respond to this order. As we have long made clear, however, the Department will comply with NRC or judicial orders that are directed to DOE, subject, of course, to the availability of appropriated funds.”

The DOE had about $16 million in unobligated funds originally appropriated for Yucca Mountain licensing activities and about $30 million in obligated balances that were already committed on existing contracts, Lyons said.

Industry group the NEI on Wednesday applauded House subcommittee members for efforts to persuade the two energy agencies to release information on restarting the repository license process. “The big news coming out of today’s hearing was the clear message from committee members that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should act immediately to complete the Yucca Mountain Safety Evaluation Reports,” NEI President and CEO Marvin Fertel said in a statement. “The nuclear energy industry agrees.”

Fertel pointed out that federal law requires licensing review for Yucca Mountain. “Consumers of electricity generated by America’s 100 reactors deserve to know whether Yucca Mountain is a safe site for the permanent disposal of used nuclear fuel,” he said. They have contributed nearly $35 billion in fees and interest to the federal government specifically for used nuclear fuel management.”

Sources: POWER, House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, NEI

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

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