House panel schedules May 15 hearing on complex issues with nuclear waste disposal

On May 15, the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy at the House Energy and Committee will hold a hearing on the always controversial subject of nuclear waste storage, with the hearing entitled “Update on the Current State of Nuclear Waste Management Policy.”

A May 12 committee staff memo issued ahead of the hearing said that witnesses will be:

  • Andrew Fitz, Senior Counsel, Office of the Attorney General, State of Washington;
  • Josephine Piccone, Director, Yucca Mountain Directorate, Nuclear Regulatory Commission;
  • Greg R. White, Commissioner, Michigan Public Service Commission, on behalf of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, Chairman, Subcommittee on Nuclear Issues–Waste Disposal;
  • Stephen Kucynski, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Southern Nuclear Operating Co.;
  • Geoffrey H. Fettus, Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council; and
  • Einar Ronningen, Manager, Rancho Seco Assets, Decommissioning Plant Coalition.

The memo noted that since the Manhattan Project, the United States has accumulated high-level radioactive waste that requires permanent disposal. Use of nuclear reactors to power navy ships, as well as activities to maintain a nuclear deterrent has resulted in over 13,000 tons of defense waste located primarily in Washington State, South Carolina, and Idaho. Civilian commercial use of nuclear power to produce electricity has produced over 74,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel (SNF), currently located at seventy-five sites in thirty-three states, and continues to accumulate at a rate of approximately 2,000 tons annually.

In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) to designate the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada as the sole location for a permanent repository. In the ensuing years, DOE conducted extensive site characterization and related activities to inform the Yucca Mountain license application to authorize construction. In 2010, the Obama Administration, after years of infighting with state officials from in and around Nevada, announced its intention to abandon the Yucca Mountain project and made a motion to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application from the NRC with prejudice. It concurrently terminated all activities to support the repository program.

Court order forced resumption of Yucca Mountain process

The states of Washington and South Carolina, in addition to private parties, sued the federal government to resume the NRC’s review of the license. In August 2013, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the petitioners and issued a writ of mandamus forcing NRC to promptly continue the licensing process for Yucca Mountain. The court wrote that NRC had “continued to violate the law governing the Yucca Mountain licensing process,” and directed the NRC to use appropriated funds to consider the license. In response to the court order, the NRC resumed consideration of the scientific and technical review of the DOE’s license application, known as the Safety Evaluation Report (SER), with its remaining Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF) balance.

In January, the NRC issued the fifth and final volume of the SER. The NRC found that DOE’s license application met applicable regulatory requirements, including post-closure requirements that the repository could be reasonably expected to safely protect public health for one million years. However, the NRC staff withheld the recommendation to issue the construction authorization license due to issues relating to the ownership and control of the land where the repository would be located and associated water access.

In February, NRC Chairman Stephen Burns announced the commission will complete the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for Yucca Mountain because the Department of Energy (DOE) informed the NRC it would not update the document. NRC’s actions will exhaust the remainder of its NWF money (approximately $4 million) previously appropriated by Congress. DOE has approximately $17.1 million in the Defense Nuclear Waste Disposal and Nuclear Waste Disposal accounts to support the license application, but is not actively supporting any Yucca Mountain activities.

Prior to the commission making a final decision on the Yucca Mountain license application, DOE and NRC must resolve approximately 300 contentions filed by affected parties associated with the project. Funding for Yucca Mountain is provided through payment of fees to the NWF by ratepayers who pay for nuclear-generated electricity.

Another court decision had to do with nuclear waste fee collection

In November 2013, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) in NARUC v. DOE. The court held that the fee may not be collected due to the federal government’s lack of a nuclear waste management plan as a result of DOE’s closure of the Yucca Mountain Project. The approximately $750 million annual collection was suspended by DOE in May 2014. As of Sept. 30, 2014, the NWF maintained a balance of $36 billion.

Due to the delay in DOE taking title to commercial SNF, the court has ruled federal government is in partial breach of contract. Therefore, the federal government is responsible for the payment of settlements related to additional costs imposed on utilities. The National Law Journal reports that associated Judgement Fund payments exceeded $900 million in 2014, totaling approximately one third of all such payments by the federal government.

Multiple private companies recently announced intentions to pursue an NRC license to operate a consolidated interim storage facilities for high-level waste. The NWPA authorized the construction of an interim storage facility by DOE, conditional on the issuance of a construction authorization permit for a permanent repository (Yucca Mountain) prior to any licensing action on interim or “Monitored Retrievable Storage.”

DOE’s “Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste” calls for the development of at least one consolidated interim facility, but DOE lacks the legal authority and funding to execute the proposal. In 1985, a Presidential determination stated that nuclear waste from defense activities and commercial waste should be disposed of together in a geologic repository designed to store all material. Yucca Mountain is designed to serve as the sole repository for all nuclear material, including defense waste.

However, on March 24, President Obama authorized DOE to begin a process to pursue the development of a separate disposal path for DOE-managed high-level radioactive waste, including waste generated by defense activities. The decision departed from a 30-year old national policy to dispose of commercial and defense waste together in a single repository, the staff memo noted.

The following issues may be examined at the May 15 hearing:

  • Current status of the federal government’s efforts relating to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and nuclear waste management.
  • Nuclear waste management policy issues to facilitate the development of one or more disposal options.
  • Linkage between a permanent repository and potential interim storage.
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.