NRC Staff Report Reignites Yucca Mountain Debate

How the 2014 midterm U.S. elections go may well determine whether the nuclear waste storage project in Nevada goes forward, four years after the Obama administration halted it.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, were among the Republicans calling for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue its licensing review of the Department of Energy's Yucca Mountain project after NRC's staff published Vol. 3 of its safety evaluation report on Oct. 16. Yucca Mountain is a huge underground repository built to store nuclear waste from U.S. commercial nuclear power plants. The Obama administration halted the project in 2010, with DOE moving to withdraw its application and Congress stopping appropriations for the NRC's review. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., adamantly opposes it.

The "Safety Evaluation Report Related to Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Wastes in a Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada" report addresses Yucca Mountain's safety after it is permanently closed – specifically, whether its design would safely house the waste materials for 1 million years and deter both human and groundwater intrusion. The staff's report concludes that it will.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered NRC in August 2013 to resume the licensing process using available funding appropriated from the Nuclear Waste Fund. That order led to the publication of Volume 3. The staff expects to publish volumes 2 (Repository Safety Before Permanent Closure), 4 (Administrative and Programmatic Requirements) and 5 (License Specifications) by January 2015, as they are completed. NRC's release about the newly published volume states that it "does not signal whether the NRC might authorize construction of the repository. A final licensing decision, should funds beyond those currently available be appropriated, could come only after completion of the safety evaluation report, a supplement to the Department of Energy's environmental impact statement, hearings on contentions in the adjudication, and Commission review."

Murkowski could become the Senate committee's chair if enough Republican candidates win U.S. Senate seats on Nov. 4 to swing the majority to their party beginning in January 2015, and her Oct. 16 statement shows she supports licensing the repository. "Knowing that the Yucca Mountain site is a safe, worthwhile investment as a permanent repository for the country's spent nuclear material is welcome, if long overdue, news, and I call on the NRC to resume its license review process and for Congress to provide the NRC with the funds needed to complete its review," she said. "At the same time, the Senate should act on nuclear waste legislation that I have been working on with my colleagues to deal with the need for interim storage. Even in light of progress on Yucca Mountain, we still need a short-term solution to consolidate the used fuel that is currently sitting at various sites across the country."

"The release of this game-changing report marks a critical milestone in restoring America's nuclear leadership," Upton said in his statement. "Science, not politics, should determine Yucca's course, and this report confirms that Yucca Mountain has met the safety requirements. After a four-year delay, the public now has the benefit of the first independent safety assessment of Yucca Mountain, and can now have confidence that the repository would be in fact 'safe for a million years.' This safety evaluation embodies the objective, technical conclusions of our nation's independent nuclear safety regulator, and it represents the culmination of 30 years and $15 billion worth of scientific work by DOE and seven of our national scientific labs. I am pleased that this important work has finally come to light so we can move forward with a permanent repository and get our nation's nuclear future back on track."

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