GAO identifies key steps for Yucca Mountain licensing

31 May 2017

The US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will need to rebuild their organisational capabilities in order to restart the suspended licensing process for the Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste repository, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

US nuclear waste management policy is enshrined in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which established federal responsibility for all civil used fuel and obliged the government - through the DOE - to begin removing used fuel from nuclear facilities by 1998 for disposal in a federal facility. The act was amended in 1987 to designate Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the sole site for the repository for 70,000 tonnes of high-level waste.

The DOE submitted a construction licence application for the Yucca Mountain repository to the NRC in 2008, but following 2009's presidential elections the Obama administration subsequently decided to abort the project, appointing a high-level Blue Ribbon Commission to come up with alternative strategies.

The NRC terminated licensing activities for Yucca Mountain in 2011, but in August 2013 was ordered to resume work on its technical and environmental reviews of the application by the US Court of Appeals. NRC staff completed and published the final volumes of the safety evaluation report in January 2015 and completed and issued an Environmental Impact Statement supplement in May 2016. The adjudicatory hearing, which must be completed before a licensing decision can be made, remains suspended.

GAO was asked by the House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce to examine the likely steps needed to resume the Yucca Mountain licensing process. GAO reviewed federal laws and documents; interviewed DOE and NRC officials and contractors; and interviewed or received written remarks from 15 of the 17 non-federal parties. It has now published its report - titled Commercial nuclear waste: Resuming licensing of the Yucca Mountain repository would require rebuilding capacity at DOE and NRC, among other key steps.

The report examines the actions that took place after DOE submitted its motion to withdraw its application and any plans by DOE or NRC to resume the licensing process. It also considers the likely key steps needed to resume and complete the process.

The GAO identifies four key steps that would be needed to resume and complete the licensing process.

GAO said the NRC must firstly receive direction to resume the Yucca Mountain licensing process. The five-member commission must also decide on several aspects of the process, including the timeline for its completion and whether relevant regulations require updating. This will enable NRC, DOE and other parties involved to identify the costs involved and to obtain the necessary funding.

Secondly, DOE, NRC and non-federal parties will need to rebuild their organisational capabilities, including the rehiring or recruiting legal, scientific and other experts. NRC and DOE will also need to update documents for the licensing process, including the licence application and the environmental impact statement.

The NRC and its Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards will then need to issue orders for the resumption of the adjudication. Hearings would then be held on the safety and other aspects of the proposed repository.

On completion of the adjudication, the NRC would then examine the totality of the information and decide whether or not to issue a construction licence for the project.

GAO identified a number of factors that could affect the time needed to resume and complete the licensing process.

"At present, there are at least two unresolved legal issues that would need to be addressed and that could affect the timeline for completing the licensing process," GAO said. It said the DOE may need to acquire the land and water rights it needs for construction authorisation. In addition, a legal challenge questioning NRC's changes to its safety regulations for the repository's expected period of performance could also prolong the timeline.

GAO said it provided NRC and DOE with a draft of its report for comment. "NRC generally agreed with our findings," it said. "DOE did not indicate whether it generally agreed or disagreed."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News