The US looks at steps needed to restart the Yucca Mountain project

1 June 2017

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said on 31 May that the Department of Energy (DOE) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would need to rebuild their organisational capabilities to restart the licensing process for the Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste repository in Nevada.

The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act established federal responsibility for all civil used fuel and obliged the government (through DOE) to begin removing used fuel from nuclear facilities by 1998 for disposal in a federal facility. The act was amended in 1987 designating Yucca Mountain as the sole site for the repository for 70,000 tonnes of high-level waste.

DOE applied for a construction licence to NRC in 2008, but the administration of President Barack Obama subsequently decided to abort the project, appointing a high-level Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate alternative strategies.  The NRC terminated licensing activities for Yucca Mountain in 2011. However, in August 2013 the US Court of Appeals ordered NRC to resume work on its technical and environmental reviews of the application. NRC staff published the final volumes of the safety evaluation report in January 2015 and issued an Environmental Impact Statement Supplement in May 2016. The adjudicatory hearing, which must be completed before a licensing decision can be made, remains suspended.

Following renewed interest in Yucca Mountain by the administration of President Donald Trump, the House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce asked GAO to examine the likely steps needed to resume the Yucca Mountain licensing process. GAO identified four key steps required to continue and complete the licensing process.

GAO said the NRC must first receive direction and obtain funding to resume the Yucca Mountain licensing process. The five-member commission must also decide on the timeline for completing licensing and whether relevant regulations need updating. That will enable NRC, DOE and other parties involved to identify the costs involved and to obtain the necessary funding.

Second, DOE, NRC and non-federal parties will need to rebuild their organisational capabilities by rehiring or recruiting legal, scientific and other experts. NRC and DOE must also update key documents for the licensing process, including the licence application and the environmental impact statement.

Third, NRC and its Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards will need to issue orders for the resumption of the adjudication. Hearings would be held on the safety and other aspects of the proposed repository. NRC will then look at all the information before deciding whether to issue a construction licence for the project.

"At present, there are at least two unresolved legal issues that would need to be addressed and that could affect the timeline for completing the licensing process," GAO said.

"First, DOE may need to acquire the land and water rights it needs for construction authorization."

"Second, a legal challenge questioning NRC’s changes to its safety regulations for the repository’s expected period of performance could also prolong the timeline for completing the licensing process."

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