DOE legal obligation on Yucca Mountain

09 August 2016

The US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has urged the Department of Energy (DOE) to pursue the completion of the licensing review for the Yucca Mountain used fuel and nuclear waste disposal facility, saying the consent-based siting process proposed by the department cannot legally substitute for the Nevada project.

 The underground Exploratory Studies Facility at Yucca Mountain (Image: DOE/NRC)

The Washington, DC-based organization, which represents the USA's commercial nuclear industry, made the comments in its submission to the DOE's request for public input on the consent-based approach, issued in December 2015.

"We respectfully suggest that the Department must follow current law, under which the proposed Yucca Mountain project remains the only … repository authorized to date," NEI Vice President and General Counsel Ellen Ginsberg said in her letter accompanying the submission. She called for the DOE to request money from Congress to support completion of the Yucca Mountain licensing review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "If DOE does proceed with a consent-based siting approach, we emphasize that this would not, and legally cannot, substitute for compliance with the NWPA," it said. The NWPA is the US Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

Since 1987, Yucca Mountain has been named in the NWPA as the sole initial repository for disposal of the USA's used nuclear fuel and high level radioactive wastes. The DOE submitted a construction licence application to the NRC in 2008, but the US Administration subsequently decided to abort the project, appointing a high-level Blue Ribbon Commission to come up with alternative strategies.

The Commission recommended an integrated waste management system with a commitment to a consent-based approach to siting facilities. The public comment period announced by the DOE forms the initial stages of developing such a consent-based process.

While commending the DOE for "recognizing that developing and presenting to the public a fair consent-based waste storage or disposal facility siting process is critically important to its ultimate success," the NEI said in its submission that DOE's own failure to comply with the NWPA was undermining its own potential for success.

It said that any new siting process should only be applied to new facilities and not be retroactively applied to projects that are already going forward, including Waste Control Specialists' (WCS) proposed interim storage facility in Texas, for which an application has already been filed with the NRC, and Holtec's proposed New Mexico facility for which a licence is expected to be filed later this year. "Both WCS and Holtec have expended considerable effort to gain the consent of their respective host states and communities. The Department should not interfere with the WCS and Holtec efforts (and perhaps others that may be in the offing in the near term) by imposing on them any consent-based siting process DOE ultimately develops," the NEI said. "Grafting a new siting process onto ongoing projects would be particularly unfair and provide no measureable benefit," it added.

The institute also cautioned the DOE not to use money from the Nuclear Waste Fund - into which customers and utilities have paid more than $20 billion through a 0.1 cent per kilowatt-hour fee levied against nuclear generation - for new siting activities not authorized by the NWPA or approved by Congress. "While we support some funding for local investigation and evaluation, we emphasize that without a change in the law, money from the Nuclear Waste Fund may not be diverted to support an alternative nuclear waste disposal program," it said.

The NEI said the DOE should take the opportunity to learn lessons from domestic and international projects, highlighting successful projects in Finland, France and Canada, as well as the WCS and Holtec efforts as successful projects. "With regard to the examples of unsuccessful siting, we urge the Department to explore the reasons for the failures that occurred and apply those lessons-learned to DOE's future siting efforts," it said.

The DOE's public comment period on considerations for the siting process ended on 31 July. A series of eight public meetings have also been held. DOE has said it will used the input to inform the design of a consent-based siting process, with a summary report due to be published later this year.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News