Contract awarded to manage Yucca Mountain project

03 November 2008

The US Department of Energy (DoE) has awarded a contract worth up to $2.5 billion to the USA Repository Services LLC (USA-RS) consortium to manage and operate the used nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Yucca Mountain - aerial 
Yucca Mountain (Image: DOE)
The USA-RS partnership - a subsidiary of URS Corp that includes its Washington Division, Areva and the Shaw Group - will provide mission support to the DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) for the Yucca Mountain project. After "transition activities" are completed, USA-RS will assume responsibility for the performance of the Yucca Mountain project on 1 April 2009. The performance-based, cost-plus award-fee contract initially covers a five-year period, with a potential five-year extension until 31 March 2019.

USA-RS will have several key responsibilities under this contract: it will complete the detailed design of the repository; address questions on the licence application submitted to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) earlier at the beginning of June 2008; operate the existing Yucca mountain facilities before construction authorization; and, support management of construction and operation activities at the repository.

Secretary of energy, Sam Bodman, said: "If we are to meet growing energy demand and slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power must be a larger part of our energy mix ... In order to ensure that such an expansion can occur, the United States must have a permanent repository for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste." He added, "This contract will enable our national repository program to move forward by securing the necessary management and operations expertise needed as we begin the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing proceedings."

Tom Zarges, president of URS's Washington Division, said, "We are very pleased to have been selected for this project, which is vital to the future of nuclear power and energy independence for the United States. URS has a long history of supporting the DOE, and has managed many successful projects including the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, the nation's only operating deep geological nuclear waste repository."

"Shaw has provided oversight support on the preliminary design and licensing of the Yucca Mountain project for almost 11 years. We are pleased to increase our involvement and expand the professional services provided to this first-of-a-kind project," said J M Bernhard, Shaw's chairman, president and CEO.

Jacques Besnainou, president of Areva Inc, commented, "Areva is extremely pleased that our team has been selected by DoE for this critical project." He added, "We look forward to working with our team and DoE to assure the disposition of used fuel and radioactive waste is accomplished in a safe and secure manner." The principal Areva contribution to the project will be in the surface facility design and to lend its expertise in support of the NRC review of the licence application.

Future contracts

The USA has been planning the Yucca Mountain repository for many years. Since 1977, when it ruled that used fuel was to be treated as waste and could not be reprocessed to recover uranium and reduce its volume, the government has had a responsibility to provide final disposal of the fuel in a deep geologic disposal facility. According to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the DoE was supposed to start accepting fuel from utilities early in 1998, but its failure to provide a repository on time has meant that the fuel has had to be stored at reactor sites. Since 1998 some 60 lawsuits have been launched by US utilities to try to recover the extra costs incurred. Payouts totalling over $600 million have already been awarded, and with other lawsuits outstanding the compensation costs to the government could run into billions.

The DoE has announced that it will extend the waste disposal contract under the 1982 legislation to also cover radioactive waste generated by new nuclear power reactors. Under the 1982 legislation, a company must have a contract with the DoE for disposal services in order to receive a construction and operating licence from the NRC for a new reactor.

"These contracts are essential to advancing the commercial nuclear renaissance which is needed in order to meet our nation's significant future demands for providing electricity in a safe, secure and environmentally friendly manner," commented Bodman.

Yucca Mountain was approved by Congress and President George Bush in 2002 as the site for the USA's first permanent used fuel and high-level waste geologic repository. The OCRWM's current projected completion date for the project is 2017, but the fate of the project would be with the next US President. The Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, "believes that Yucca Mountain is not an option" for long-term management of wastes, while Republican candidate John McCain would try to establish an international radioactive waste management scheme which could make Yucca Mountain unnecessary. The election to pick one of those men as leader, of course, occurs on 4 November.