FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

DOE Files Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository Application

Richard M. Jones
Number 64 - June11, 2008  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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"Today's application begins a new phase for the Yucca Mountain Project." -
Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman

It will be at least three years before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decides whether it will grant the Department of Energy a construction and operation license for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. The review process was initiated last week with the filing of an 8,600-page application by DOE.

An FYI written last year about a hearing before the House Budget Committee noted, "The first witness to testify was Edward Sproat, Director of the DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. Sproat . . . left little doubt that he would meet or beat his deadline to submit a Yucca Mountain construction license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by June 30, 2008."

Sproat beat his deadline. On June 3, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told an audience in Washington: "I’m pleased to announce that this morning the Department of Energy submitted a license application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission seeking authorization to build America’s first national repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. We are confident that the NRC’s rigorous review process will validate that the Yucca Mountain repository will provide for the safe disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in a way that protects human health and our environment."

It has been 20 years since the Department of Energy began what has turned out to be a $10 billion examination of the feasibility of locating a nuclear waste repository 1,000 feet below the crest of Yucca Mountain. The site is located on federally-owned land adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Congress selected Yucca Mountain in 1987 to be characterized as the site of the first permanent repository. This followed the 1982 passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which provided for the identification by DOE of a permanent geologic repository. In 2002, Congress and President Bush accepted DOE's determination that Yucca Mountain would be an appropriate location for the repository. See this DOE site for more information on this proposed facility. DOE estimates there are now 47,500 metric tons of commercial and defense spent nuclear fuel, plus another 100 million gallons of liquid high-level radioactive waste being stored in temporary storage facilities in 39 states.

Congressional reaction to the Department's filing of the application was predictability mixed. House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) was supportive: "I welcome the Department of Energy’s announcement today regarding its submittal of a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to construct a deep geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain. This application is long overdue. As Congress begins to consider climate change legislation, there is wide recognition that nuclear power will continue to supply a significant part of our electricity needs. Even if our country advances new nuclear technologies such as spent fuel reprocessing, establishing and building a permanent high level waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain is critical to dealing with existing spent fuel and to the future of nuclear energy in our country." Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) is a strong supporter of nuclear energy and spent fuel recycling, and his statement was more nuanced: "After years of debate, the suitability of the Yucca Mountain repository is now in the hands of the experts at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This action is consistent with the direction given by Congress and the President when the Yucca Mountain site was approved six years ago. It is my belief that America needs a solution to the nuclear waste question, and I believe that reprocessing could in fact be the best way to meet our nation’s needs. Nevertheless, it is important that the NRC begin work on its review process for Yucca Mountain so that all of our options remain on the table.”

A June 5 letter from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the entire Nevada congressional delegation to the Commission was clear in its opposition to the project: "We have no doubt that the Department of Energy’s decision to file its license application on June 3rd was a political decision. There are too many components missing from the license application to suggest that the Department is genuinely prepared to make its case for moving forward on the Yucca Mountain project. We strongly urge the Commission to reject the Department’s approach and avoid making a decision that could have the appearance of bias."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a site devoted to the Yucca Mountain application process, with links to the DOE license application that were posted today. For the next ninety days, the Commission will study the completeness of the application, a process known as a docketing or "acceptance" review. A positive review does not indicate that the NRC will ultimately approve the application. The decision whether to approve the application is scheduled to take three years, although the NRC can request a one-year extension. Concurrent with this review is an examination of DOE's Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Yucca Mountain project that was first published in 2002. If the application is docketed, 100 NRC staff and contract employees in Maryland, Texas, and Nevada will review the application. Opportunities will be provided to request an adjudicatory hearing before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel. A much fuller explanation of this licensing process is available on the Commission's website.

The NRC website provides a succinct statement regarding the application: "The NRC will issue a construction authorization only if DOE can demonstrate that it can safely construct and operate the repository in compliance with established regulations."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095