NRC still figuring out how to restart Yucca Mountain review

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have budget and other issues in complying with a recent federal court order to restart the abandoned licensing for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, said NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane.

Macfarlane is due to testify at a Sept. 10 hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy. Her prepared testimony was posted to the committee’s website prior to the hearing, along with a Sept. 6 staff memo about the reasons for the session.

On Aug. 13, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit directed the NRC to resume its review of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) application to construct a long-controversial geologic repository for high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. The NRC promptly began taking steps to comply with the court’s direction, Macfarlane wrote.

On Aug. 30, the commission issued an order requesting that all parties to the suspended adjudication provide their views on how the NRC should continue with the licensing process. The commission has also directed the NRC offices to gather pertinent budget information during the 30 day comment period. Based on the input from the parties and the budget information provided by NRC offices, the commission will determine the path forward in the licensing process.

Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the DOE is responsible for developing and submitting to the NRC a license application for the construction of a high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain. The NRC is required by law to review the application and determine whether to issue a construction authorization to the DOE, based in part on standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and implemented in NRC regulations. The focus of the NRC’s review is on whether the DOE has demonstrated that it can construct and operate a repository safely and in compliance with NRC regulations.

The DOE submitted its license application to the NRC in June 2008. At the end of fiscal year 2011, the NRC formally suspended its review of the Yucca Mountain license application after much of the review work had been completed.

MacFarlane cites staffing, budget issues with a restart of this review process

“With the court’s decision in hand directing that the NRC resume its review, I recognize that the completion of the five-volume [safety evaluation report] will be of particular interest,” Macfarlane wrote. “This milestone represents one, albeit significant, element in the overall process required by law and/or regulations. … As the Commission noted in its last appearance before this committee, the agency is confronted with challenges associated with reconstituting the multi-disciplinary team to resume the licensing process if the court so directed. The staff’s information will also take these staffing considerations into account.”

As part of the normal license review process, the NRC would need the DOE’s participation to address any issues identified by the review team. Macfarlane deferred to DOE officials to address that department‘s ability to do so.

Additional considerations for the commission in determining the path forward involve an adjudicatory proceeding and the related licensing support network (LSN). The NRC created a web-based LSN, as a discovery tool that captures documentary material and makes it available electronically to all participants. The NRC has preserved these records but the LSN is no longer active.

Before the commission can reach a decision on the license application, a number of other adjudication-related activities must occur, including the appointment of a board to conduct this proceeding; the completion of discovery; the conduct of a full evidentiary hearing on the nearly 300 pending contested issues that were raised by multiple parties in opposition to the license; and the issues before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board would need to be resolved. A completed, adjudicated environmental impact statement and supplement is also necessary for a license decision to satisfy National Environmental Policy Act requirements. In addition, the parties would have the right to appeal the licensing boards’ final decisions resolving contentions to the commission. All of these steps must be completed before a final agency decision on the construction authorization can be made.

The NRC currently has about $11.1m in unobligated carryover money appropriated from the Nuclear Waste Fund. There is also an additional $2.5m of obligated, unexpended Nuclear Waste Fund money.

“As this Committee is aware, the NRC does not have in reserve sufficient resources to complete all of the necessary steps in this licensing process,” Macfarlane wrote. “No additional funds for high-level waste were requested or appropriated to the NRC in fiscal year 2012 or fiscal year 2013. The matter of whether or not funds are appropriated for the fiscal year 2014 is before Congress and the fiscal year 2015 budget development process is well underway. As the court noted in its decision, the underlying policy debate related to the matter of future funding for the NRC license review of DOE’s Yucca Mountain license application is for Congress and the President to address.”

Peter Lyons, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at DOE, is also due to testify at the Sept. 10 hearing, but his pre-filed testimony wasn’t available as of mid-day on Sept. 9.

President Obama in his FY2011 budget proposal in February 2010 proposed cutting funding for Yucca Mountain with the statement that: “[T]he Administration has determined that Yucca Mountain, Nevada, is not a workable option for a waste repository and will discontinue its program to construct a repository at the mountain in 2010. The Department will carry out its responsibilities under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act within the Office of Nuclear Energy as it develops a new nuclear waste management strategy.”

In January 2010, DOE Secretary Steven Chu announced the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on America’s Nuclear Future to conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and recommend a new strategy.

In July 2011, the states of South Carolina and Washington, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and other parties petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals to issue a writ of mandamus to compel NRC to resume consideration of the license application and issue a final decision. That resulted in the Aug. 13 court decision.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.