DoE told to finish the job at Yucca Mountain

30 June 2010

The Yucca Mountain project looks close to resurrection after the Department of Energy (DoE) was told that it must follow through on the waste disposal plan as specified by Congress. 


Yucca Mountain - aerial
Yucca Mountain: Stock photos like this
could be in use for many years to come
Back in 1982 Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which was meant to give America a solid policy for the final disposal of its high level wastes from military, research and power generation activities. For the power business this means used fuel from nuclear power plants. The program progressed to look for two waste disposal sites - one in the west and one in the east - until another act of Congress in 2002 directed the Department of Energy to only consider the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.


At that point great opposition arose in the state, which seemed to have succeeded in shelving Yucca Mountain when President Barack Obama came to power in 2009 declaring that Yucca Mountain was "not an option." Obama's energy secretary Stephen Chu soon filed to withdraw the application to build the facility, cut funding and abandoned the entire program in search of a better one. The DoE has claimed Yucca Mountain is "not workable" and that "alternatives will better serve the public interest."


Now, the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) has told the DoE it had no right to substitute its own ideas in place of those legislated by Congress. The DoE and the NRC are bound by law to complete their work at Yucca Mountain unless Congress acts to supercede the previous legislation. The DoE move to withdraw the application was rejected by the ASLB. "Unless Congress directs otherwise, the DoE may not single-handedly derail the legislated decisionmaking process by withdrawing the application. The DoE's motion must therefore be denied."


The move would be welcomed by those that petitioned against the DoE's move to withdraw: the states of Washington and South Carolina, Aiken County, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, the Nuclear Energy Institute and six counties in Nevada.


The ALSB noted that the 1982 act had deliberately put ultimate siting authority with Congress and not with the President or the DoE. Furthermore: "When Congress selected the Yucca Mountain site over Nevada's objection in 2002, it reinforced the expectation in the 1982 act that the project would be removed from the political process and that the NRC would complete an evaluation of [its] technical merits."


Chu's first budget for the DoE in May 2009 eliminated "all funding for the development of the Yucca Mountain facility... such as further land acquisition, transportation access and additional engineering." It was said that this 'terminated' the program in order to develop alternatives. A 'blue-ribbon commission' has already begun to look into this matter with the aim of "working with Congress to revise the statutory framework for managing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste."


In February 2009 funding for Yucca was cut to "those costs necessary to answer inquiries from the NRC, while the administration devises a new strategy towards nuclear waste disposal." This raises questions of how the DoE would respond should questions start coming thick and fast from an office of NRC officials fully re-engaged on the 8600-page licence application.

The ruling by the ASLB will go to a meeting of the NRC commissioners themselves, who will decide what the body's course of action will be.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News