Official confident Yucca plan to clear licensing challenges

WASHINGTON -- A top Department of Energy official expressed confidence Thursday that the DOE's voluminous application to build a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository will clear initial license hurdles.

"We believe we have met your requirements in terms of a complete and accurate license application. We have addressed all the acceptance criteria," repository director Ward Sproat told Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff at a briefing.

Sproat, head of the DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, said the application was "complete and high quality." That is the criteria that NRC staff will use to judge whether to docket the DOE bid and initiate comprehensive safety reviews.

But Nevada officials who attended the same briefing said it confirmed to them the Yucca application has holes. They said DOE presenters made clear that more work remains to be done on detailed blueprints for the site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The purpose of the briefing scheduled for two days at NRC headquarters was for DOE to explain how it organized its 8,600 page application packet that was filed June 3, as well as thousands of pages of supporting documents. Officials stressed that issues of substance would not be discussed.

But speaking to reporters during a break, Steve Frishman, technical policy coordinator for the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, argued the level of detail in DOE's application does not meet the NRC's standards.

The level of detail in the application has emerged as an early point of contention in the licensing process.

DOE officials said the plans they submitted are acceptable. Nevada attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto filed a petition asking the top NRC commissioners to reject the DOE application as incomplete.

The commission has not ruled but in a legal opinion this week agency attorneys appeared to side with the DOE.

The attorneys said regulations do not require the DOE to "fully describe" all designs, as long as they provide "sufficient information" about components important to safety.

In one of the DOE presentations Thursday, Yucca regulatory director William Boyle said the design detail was consistent with NRC's regulations and its repository review plan. DOE is using NRC-approved methodologies to set the technical boundaries within which the final designs would fit, he said.

Likewise on nuclear waste casks and containers, the DOE evaluated representative designs since it has only recently awarded contracts for the specific multi-purpose canisters that would be used at the site.

Frishman said lack of final designs raises uncertainties about repository safety.

"We believe there should be real designs," Frishman said. "The whole license application is whether the NRC can say whether there will be reasonable assurance the repository is safe. How can you have reasonable assurance when you don't know what the (radiation) doses are to the public."

Martin Malsch, an attorney for Nevada, also questioned whether 196 documents the DOE has submitted as primary references will be considered an official part of the license application.

If the NRC deems they are not part of the application, they may be out of reach from Nevada legal challenges.

The NRC staff has until September to decide whether to docket the repository application for further reviews and hearings that could consume the next three or four years at least.