US waste management bill passes committee vote

29 June 2017

The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee yesterday passed HR 3053, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017, by 49 votes to four. The legislation aims to reform US nuclear waste management policy to ensure the government can meet its obligations to dispose of used fuel and high-level waste. It will "preserve" Yucca Mountain as the "most expeditious path" to achieving this.

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

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

The DOE submitted a construction licence application for the Yucca Mountain repository to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2008, but following 2009's presidential election, the US administration decided to abort the project. NRC licensing activities for Yucca Mountain were terminated in 2011, but the regulator resumed work on its technical and environmental reviews of the application following a 2013 order by the US Court of Appeals. It published the final volumes of the safety evaluation report in January 2015 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.

According to the Energy and Commerce subcommittee, the Amendments Act would preserve Yucca Mountain "as the most expeditious path for used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste disposal while authorising interim storage, including private storage initiatives, to provide optionality until Yucca Mountain is fully licensed and prepared to receive shipments".

The act's "practical reforms" to the country's nuclear waste management policy include provisions for consolidated interim storage of used fuel - currently stored at reactor sites around the country - and clarification on when the DOE takes title to used fuel. It addresses various issues connected with the proposed Yucca Mountain permanent repository, including land withdrawal and water access, and clarifies regulatory and permitting requirements related to the development of the repository. It also reforms the Nuclear Waste Fund - set aside to pay for the repository from a levy on nuclear utilities of 0.1 cents per kWh of nuclear power generated - to protect the money already collected and ensure it is available over the course of the project.

The House Appropriations Committee's Energy and Water Appropriations Bill for fiscal 2018, released on 27 June, continues congressional efforts to support Yucca Mountain. It provides $90 million for the nuclear waste disposal program, $30 million for defence nuclear waste disposal, and $30 million for the NRC to continue the adjudication of the DOE's Yucca Mountain License application. The bill, which totals $37.56 billion, includes $969 million for research, development, and demonstration activities "to promote innovation and growth in nuclear energy". This is $48 million below the fiscal year 2017 enacted level and $266 million above the amount in the presidential budget request.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News