Final NRC Report Says Yucca Site Safe But Licensing Will Require More Funding

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By Matthew Berger

Jan. 30 — The proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository meets safety requirements but should not yet be authorized for construction, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Jan. 30.

Those findings complete a drawn-out review of the safety and suitability of the Yucca Mountain site as a nuclear waste repository, a review that began in 2008 and has experienced numerous delays. The findings do not complete the licensing process required for construction to begin on the repository, however, and it appears that process might face further delays due to insufficient funding.

The final two volumes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Safety Evaluation Report (SER) on the Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain application cover the safety of the repository prior to its permanent closure and proposed conditions on the construction and licensing processes. They are the last two volumes of a five-volume report that was begun following DOE’s submission of the Yucca Mountain application in June 2008.

The review of that application was suspended in 2011, with just one volume published, after DOE moved to withdraw its application and Congress stopped appropriating funds for the safety review and licensing process.

A court order in August 2013 forced the NRC to resume its review (In re Aiken Cnty, 725 F.3d 255, 77 ERC 1334, 2013 BL 211827 (D.C. Cir., 2013).

Volume three, on the safety of the repository after permanent closure and for 1 million years thereafter, was published in October 2014, and volume four, on administrative and programmatic requirements, was published in December.

The final volumes released this week conclude that, subject to certain conditions, the application for the repository meets NRC regulatory requirements.

‘Long Overdue.'

The confirmation that the project, first proposed in the 1980s, appears safe was welcome news to utility companies that have paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund, intended to fund the disposal of the nation’s nuclear waste, for nearly three decades.

“It’s long overdue—people have been paying for 30 years and we’ve finally got a statement that this is a safe venue,” Rob Thormeyer, spokesman for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 30. “Customers were paying and deserve to see some fruits from that.”

Those payments were halted in 2013, after a lawsuit filed by NARUC resulted in a ruling that utilities will not have pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund until DOE “comes to some conclusion as to how nuclear wastes are to be deposited permanently” (Nat'l Ass'n of Regulatory Util. Comm'rs v. Dep't of Energy,736 F.3d 517, 77 ERC 1585, 2013 BL 320492 (D.C. Cir. 2013)).

“If they restart the program, then by all means start collecting fees again, but until that happens customers shouldn’t have to pay,” Thormeyer said.

Next Steps 

The completion of the SER does not equate to the issuing of a license for construction to begin on the repository. A number of steps remain in that licensing process, and at this point the NRC does not appear to have the funding to complete those steps, according to NRC officials and documents.

Those steps include meeting the conditions set out in the SER to acquire additional land around the repository site. That land, which is currently held by several other federal agencies, would need to be re-designated for the repository by Congress.

The SER conditions also stipulate that the DOE obtain additional water rights in the Yucca Mountain area, rights that are currently held by the state of Nevada, which has defended its hold on those rights in litigation that is currently stayed.

The NRC also needs to complete a supplemental environmental impact statement on groundwater issues, which the agency asked the DOE to complete in 2013 but which the department refused to do. The NRC is pursuing preparation of the supplemental EIS on its own.

Finally, an adjudication hearing on 300 contentions challenging the repository, filed by Nevada and others, also needs to be conducted by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. Completing that hearing will require additional funding that would need to be appropriated from the Nuclear Waste Fund by Congress.

Funding Shortfall 

When the NRC was ordered to continue with the licensing process in 2013, it was appropriated about $13.5 million from the Nuclear Waste Fund. As of Dec. 31, 2014, it had $4.7 million remaining, according to a document on the NRC's website. That is likely to be enough to complete the supplemental EIS, but NRC officials told Bloomberg BNA that it will not be enough to cover the adjudication hearing.

“The adjudication is really the bigger impediment—that could take years, whereas a supplemental EIS probably won’t,” NRC spokeswoman Maureen Conley told Bloomberg BNA.

Senate Republican aides told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 30 that Republican lawmakers are weighing their options as to when and exactly how to introduce legislation to designate the additional land needed for the repository and appropriate funds to pay for the remaining steps in the licensing process and eventual construction.

They said they hope to persuade some Democrats to support the legislation as well, by pointing to the new findings in the SER, which they said undermined Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) arguments that the Yucca Mountain site was unsafe.

Only once those steps are completed would the NRC review the full record and decide whether or not to license the repository.

To contact the reporter on this story: Matthew Berger in Washington at mberger_ic@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com