NRC staff gives Yucca overview a passing grade

WASHINGTON — The plan to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada passed an initial test on Monday when a safety review team gave a passing grade to an introductory part of the project’s license application.

A staff of scientists and consultants for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released the first volume of a five-volume safety evaluation report that will dissect the 8,600-page application submitted two years ago by the Department of Energy.

The Obama administration is seeking to terminate the project, and the commissioners who guide the NRC, an independent agency, are expected to rule soon whether the license process can be brought to an end.

In the meantime, the staff of the NRC has not been directed to stop its evaluation of the application. A second volume is expected to be released this fall.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power industry’s chief lobbying arm, said the NRC was following procedure. “The project continues until it is officially ended and no earlier,” spokesman John Keeley said.

The initial review issued Monday involved descriptions of the site, proposed construction schedules and summaries of the geology and hydrology research conducted over 20 years.

Before President Barack Obama decided to shelve the site, which is 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the Department of Energy proposed it for the burial of 77,000 tons of radioactive waste from commercial power plants and government weapons reservations.

Bruce Breslow, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, which opposes the project, said the initial report was not expected to be contentious.

“Volume One is not a big one for us,” Breslow said. “It basically is general information making sure things were done under the rules properly.”

Breslow predicted the next volume of the NRC staff report will be controversial.

It will evaluate the question of whether waste canisters proposed by DOE plus the mountain’s geology could keep radioactive particles from escaping into groundwater over periods of thousands of years.

In a statement, the NRC said the report published Monday “does not represent a licensing decision or indicate what an eventual licensing decision might be.”

No decision to grant or deny a license would be issued until the completion of a review and hearing process that would take four years or more.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760.

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