NRC staff: Yucca Mountain could meet safety needs

WASHINGTON — A long-awaited report issued Thursday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found the Yucca Mountain site — once considered by the government but halted by the Obama administration — could be safe to store nuclear waste.

The federal agency released a staff analysis of a plan that the Department of Energy submitted for a license in 2008 but later disavowed. The 781-page document concluded that the site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas “with reasonable expectation” could satisfy licensing rules.

The report immediately was seized by supportive lawmakers on Capitol Hill and executives in the nuclear industry as evidence the Yucca Mountain program largely dismantled by the Obama administration should be reassembled.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the NRC study shows the Nevada site is “a safe, worthwhile investment” that should be allowed to move forward.

If Republicans capture Senate control in the midterm elections next month, Murkowski would likely become chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Other Republicans have said that fresh votes on Yucca would be among the priorities in a GOP-controlled Congress.

Officials from the state of Nevada, which has fought against Yucca Mountain, challenged the report.

Robert Halstead, director of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said the NRC staff did not fully consider all the probabilities that could affect safety.

“It’s a pretty meek endorsement,” Halstead said. A review of the license application by state scientists and lawyers came up with 229 technical challenges, or contentions, that Nevada is prepared to pursue if the Yucca program moves forward.

The NRC staff report analyzed the most far-reaching aspect of the repository plan: Whether the natural geology of Yucca Mountain coupled with a system of man-made barriers that would be built within the mountain could keep decaying radioactive particles from leaking into groundwater over periods of up to a million years.

After dissecting relevant parts of the license application, NRC analysts concluded it was reasonable to expect it “satisfies the requirements” for long-term nuclear waste storage.

Other aspects of the plan are still being studied by the NRC staff, and are expected to be discussed in other evaluation reports scheduled to be released before the end of the year. The report issued Thursday was Volume 3 of what is envisioned to be a five-volume study.

The release of only a partial report “creates a false impression that the safety review has been completed,” Halstead said, suggesting politics might be at play.

“It’s difficult to see what reason there could be for such a release except to provide political support and encouragement for Yucca Mountain supporters in Congress and elsewhere.”

The report is just the latest twist in the long history of the government’s attempts and failures to find a burial spot for what eventually will accumulate to more than 100,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel generated by commercial utilities and highly radioactive waste that was the byproduct in the government’s Cold War manufacture of nuclear weapons.

At Yucca Mountain, the Department of Energy once envisioned a warren of tunnels 1,000 feet below the surface and 1,000 feet above the water table where hundreds of corrosion-resistant canisters of nuclear waste would be placed in drifts and covered with titanium drip shields to protect them from whatever water would seep from the desert.

After years of delays due to mismanagement, technical setbacks and underfunding in Congress engineered by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Obama pulled the plug when he became president. A blue ribbon commission that was then formed recommended new strategy to locate and develop alternative nuclear waste sites but the entire issue has become stalled in Congress.

Marvin Fertel, chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said release of the NRC staff study was a “key milestone.” NEI is the government affairs arm of the nuclear industry.

“This technical evaluation provides strong support for our belief that the Yucca Mountain site is appropriate for an underground repository for used nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear energy facilities and high-level radioactive waste from our nation’s defense program,” Fertel said in a statement.

Debate over the NRC report could be academic. The agency is running out of money in its nuclear waste fund since Obama withdrew support for the Nevada site after forming an alliance with Reid, its chief opponent.

The administration has proposed no fresh funding for the program, whose contracts have expired and whose workers were laid off or got new jobs years ago. The site of the proposed repository is fenced off, its main feature is a 25-foot wide entrance into the 5-mile long exploratory tunnel that is monitored by security from the Nevada National Security Site.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from states where radioactive waste is stored at nuclear reactor sites propose new funding annually for Yucca Mountain. But Reid, using his power as Senate majority leader, has blocked it each year.

“It is utterly useless to have wasted millions of dollars on this report,” Reid said Thursday.

Reid said taking the NRC staff conclusions at face value “is like reading one side of a lawsuit without hearing the opposing party’s evidence. The Energy Department will not pursue licensing Yucca and Nevada has persistently opposed the dump.”

The NRC is under a 2013 court order to move forward with its review and licensing of the Yucca site, at least as long as it has money available. A 2011 lawsuit filed by the states of Washington and South Carolina and others including Nye County, Nevada, charged the NRC acted prematurely in halting its license review in 2010.

At that time, the NRC’s work on the five-volume safety evaluation was halted, a move that drew protest from career staffers and from industry representatives who charged the study was being suppressed by the administration. The work was resumed following the court order.

As of Aug. 13, NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said the agency had $6.8 million remaining in its nuclear waste fund. That money was expected to fund the completion of the Yucca Mountain safety evaluations, perform a supplemental environmental study and organize thousands of documents into a licensing library.

Some estimate the NRC might have $1 million or more still left over following those tasks but Macfarlane told reporters last month she did not know what would come next. She said it would not be possible to move forward on Yucca Mountain if the Department of Energy no longer wants to pursue a repository license.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.

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