Yucca Mountain standard invalidated

26 July 2004

A three-judge panel of the US Appeals Court for the District of Columbia has invalidated the licensing standard for a high-level radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The ruling, which came on 9 July, throws the entire future of the repository effort into doubt.

The court, as part of a complex 100-page decision, found that the 10,000-year compliance period promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and incorporated, by law, into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) licensing standard was not sufficiently protective of public health and did not, as required by the 1992 Energy Policy Act, conform to findings and recommendations of the US National Academy of Sciences.

The US Department of Energy (DoE), which has extended some of its dose calculations up to a million years, estimates that peak dose, depending on the radionuclides of concern, will come around 270,000 years after the repository is closed.

Yucca Mountain supporters and opponents agree that federal government now has three options: appeal the ruling either to the entire appeals court (an appeal en banc) or to the Supreme Court; ask Congress to legislatively mandate the 10,000-year compliance period; or revise the licensing standards. The government has 45 days to appeal.

In a statement responding to the Court of Appeals decision, energy secretary Spencer Abraham said: “While the court did not question the scientific validity of the EPA’s standards, it did vacate one aspect of the standard, the 10,000-year compliance period. Therefore, DoE will be working with the EPA and Congress to determine appropriate steps to address this issue.”

Nevada officials, on the other hand, claim the ruling has dealt a severe, if not fatal, blow to the programme. “The project is dead,” Robert Loux, director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office, told NEI.

The ruling followed hot on the heels of the DoE’s self-imposed 30 June deadline for certifying its massive web-based database of licensing support information for the repository. By law, the database must be in place and accessible on the NRC’s Licensing Support Network (LSN) six months before the DoE submits its licence application to the NRC. On 30 June, the DoE certified its database was in place, and faced immediate challenges from the state of Nevada and a coalition of environmental groups. The DoE estimates the database contains some 1.2 million documents totalling 5.6 million pages.

On 5 July, an NRC spokesman confirmed publicly that the agency had received less than half of the DoE’s documents; about 700,000 were still outstanding. On 7 July, the NRC commissioners designated G Paul Bollwerk III, chief administrative judge of the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, as pre-licence application presiding officer for Yucca Mountain responsible for resolving disputes over certification of the DoE’s LSN submissions. Bollwerk has appointed a three-member board to consider these challenges.

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