NRC says DOE needs land and water rights for Yucca Mountain

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said Jan. 29 that it cannot yet recommend approving the geologic high-level nuclear waste repository proposed for Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

But advocates of the proposed spent fuel repository say this is far from a deal killer because congress can secure the land rights prior to construction.

NRC published two more volumes of its safety evaluation report on Yucca Mountain. Issuance of Volumes two and five marks the latest development since a court order forced NRC to resume work on the Department of Energy (DOE) license application.

“NRC staff is not recommending issuance of a construction authorization at this time because the NRC staff determined that DOE has not met these regulatory requirements regarding ownership and control of the land where the GROA would be located and certain water rights. In addition, a supplement to DOE’s environmental impact statement has not yet been completed,” according to an NRC abstract.

GROA refers to the Geologic Repository Operations Area. That’s the area above and below ground where waste would be handled.

Assessment is not a deal killer, advocates note

The important thing is that these independent experts at NRC “have agreed with DOE’s conclusion that the proposed repository will be capable of safely isolating used nuclear fuel and other high level radioactive wastes for the 1 million-year period specified in the regulations and that the Yucca Mountain repository design will be capable of assuring operational safety,” said a spokesperson for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).

“Congressional action is necessary to fund NRC and DOE for the next step in the licensing process and Congressional action is necessary to secure the land rights before construction begins,” the NEI spokesperson went on to say.

“If the land and water rights are not secured by the time NRC completes its review, the construction authorization issued by NRC will be contingent upon the securing of the land and water rights,” the NEI representative added.

The NRC concern seems largely “procedural,” said a spokesperson for the National Association for Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC).

“We’re pleased the NRC staff has completed this work,” said the NARUC spokesperson. “From our read it appears the staff has found the location to be safe for storing spent-nuclear fuel. This is what we’ve been asking—that the NRC continue its statutorily obligated responsibility in this proceeding,” the NARUC representative added.

Likewise, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) didn’t seem too worried about concerns cited by NRC staff.

In Volume 2, the NRC staff recommended certain licensing conditions including requiring prior NRC approval before emplacement of certain types of fuel and complete agreements for airspace restrictions to prevent over flights. 

“Such license conditions do not preclude construction authorization but represent additional requirements DOE must meet,” Inhofe said. Volume 5 summarizes the entire Safety Evaluation Report including findings, license conditions, and the need for DOE to comply with the NRC’s requirements for land control and water rights, Inhofe added.

“Congress must now provide funding for the licensing process to continue, and transfer control over the land and water rights to the Department of Energy (DOE) to officially make Yucca Mountain a place to safely contain our nation’s nuclear waste,” Inhofe said. “I will work with my colleagues in the Senate to ensure that America has a safe, permanent resting place for nuclear waste.”

Action marks latest in Yucca Mountain saga

Early in the Obama administration, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu declined the proposed facility unsuitable and the Department of Energy (DOE) quit pursuing a license – much to the annoyance of interests that want DOE to fulfill its obligation to take possession of the spent fuel currently stored on-site at nuclear power plants.

Following court battles, NRC resumed limited work on the Yucca Mountain application in 2014.

Publication of these latest volumes completes the technical safety review of the Yucca Mountain application.

The safety evaluation report includes the staff’s recommendation that NRC should not authorize construction of the repository because DOE has not met certain land and water rights requirements identified in Volume 4, published in December, and a supplement to DOE’s environmental impact statement has not yet been completed.

Completion of the safety evaluation report does not represent an agency decision on whether to authorize construction. A final licensing decision, should funds beyond those currently available be appropriated, could come only after completion of a supplement to the DOE environmental impact statement, hearings on contentions in the adjudication, and NRC review.

DOE submitted its Yucca Mountain application in June 2008. The NRC staff published Volume 1 (General Information) of the safety evaluation report in August 2010. After DOE moved to withdraw the application and Congress stopped appropriating funds for the NRC’s review, the agency closed out its application review and published three technical evaluation reports containing the staff’s technical analyses to that point but no regulatory conclusions.

The adjudication of nearly 300 contentions filed by various parties contesting the application was also suspended in September 2011.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the NRC in August 2013 to resume the licensing process using currently available funding appropriated from the Nuclear Waste Fund.

NUREG-1949, Safety Evaluation Report Related to Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Wastes in a Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, Volumes 1-5, is available on the NRC website.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.