Application for Yucca Mountain store goes in

03 June 2008

The US Department of Energy (DoE) has submitted a licence application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the construction of the country's first deep geologic repository for used nuclear fuel. The store is meant to operate from 2017, but its future would be in the hands of the next President.


Yucca Mountain 
Yucca Mountain, Nevada (Image: NRC)
The construction licence application, which runs to over a dozen volumes backed up by tens of thousands of pages of documentation, is the next step in efforts to build a permanent disposal site for the country's used nuclear fuel.


Eliot Brenner of the NRC confirmed to World Nuclear News that the documentation was in the commission's possession. He said that the preliminary process of checking over and 'docketing' the application would take until mid-autumn and that NRC then has a statute timetable to complete its safety analysis and public hearings. The timetable was dictated by the US Congress, which has allowed the NRC the option of an extra year. Brenner told WNN that the commission anticipates needing that time, making the end of 2013 the earliest likely time construction could begin.


Yucca Mountain was approved as the site for the USA's permanent repository for used nuclear fuel in 2002. The repository would hold 70,000 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste, a figure set by Congress in 1982, although it is thought that the repository could hold many times that amount. It may need to: by early 2004, there was estimated to be some 50,000 tonnes of used fuel from US power reactors awaiting disposal plus about 8000 tonnes of government used fuel and separated high-level wastes.


The USA has been planning the 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 1982 legislation, 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. Nuclear utilities paid 0.1¢ per kWh of electricity they generated into the Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for final disposal, yet had to take on the financial burden of ongoing storage of their used fuel, many having to expand on-site storage facilities. 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.


Future uncertain


The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management's current projected completion date for the project is 2017, but even if the NRC's review of the project goes smoothly the whole future of Yucca Mountain could still hang on the political climate in the USA. Congress voted to cut the project's FY2008 budget from $494 million to $390 million, the lowest award since 2002 when the Yucca Mountain site was approved and continuing a four-year trend in which awards have been significantly below the amounts requested by DoE.


With US presidential elections due in 2008, the views of the next occupant of the White House will also be crucial to the project. Both candidates for the Democratic party nomination, Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, have gone on record as opposing Yucca Mountain on the grounds of its unsuitability as a site, although being broadly supportive of nuclear power. Republican candidate John McCain has not spoken out against the project but has said he would seek to establish an international repository for spent nuclear fuel that "could make it unnecessary to open the proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada."