Yucca Mountain application docketed

09 September 2008

Technical reviews of the Yucca Mountain repository application can begin in earnest following the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) announcement that it has been formally docketed.


Yucca water flow studies 
A scientist uses ultraviolet light to study
the movement of water through Yucca
Mountain rocks. The NRC wants more
information on the effects Yucca
Mountain will have on groundwater.
(Image: DoE)
The US Department of Energy (DoE) submitted its application for what would be the country's first repository for high-level nuclear waste on 3 June. Now, the NRC has formally ruled that the application is sufficiently complete for it to begin its full technical review. The NRC is allowed a statutory three years, with a likely one-year extension, to complete its safety analysis and public hearings, but NRC has already warned that meeting the deadline is contingent on its receiving sufficient resources from Congress.


As part of the docketing process, the NRC was required to carry out a review of the DoE's Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed facility, which was initially submitted in 2002. The regulator has ruled that while it is "practicable" for it to adopt the EIS, neither the 2002 statement or a supplementary statement submitted earlier this year go far enough in addressing the impacts of the facility on groundwater, and has required the DoE to carry out some supplementary analyses.


US Energy Secretary Sam Bodman described the docketing as a significant step towards disposing of the used nuclear fuel and high-level waste currently in storage at 121 different temporary locations, many of them nuclear power plants. "I am confident that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's rigorous review process will validate that the Yucca Mountain repository will safely store this waste in a manner that is most protective of human health and the environment", he said.


Under US legislation, the DoE was supposed to have started accepting used nuclear fuel from the beginning of 1998, but the department's failure to provide a repository by that deadline has meant that utilities have been forced to store the waste themselves, despite having already paid a levy of 0.1¢ per kWh of nuclear electricity generated into a fund to pay for final disposal. Recent estimates put the ultimate cost of the repository, if built, at $96.2 billion. The waste fund will be sufficient to cover this.


Over 100 NRC staff and employees with expertise in disciplines including geochemistry, hydrology, climatology, structural geology, vulcanology, seismology and health physics, as well as chemical, civil, mechanical, nuclear, mining, materials and geological engineering, will carry out what NRC describes as a "detailed, thorough and comprehensive review" of the application. Additionally, a hearings process in front of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) panel can now get under way, with parties including interested states, counties, local governments, and native tribes, as well as those with "litigable contentions", able to participate in the formal, trial-type process.


The contentions could be many, with the state of Nevada itself having long opposed the project. Frank 'Skip' Bowman, president and chief executive officer of US nuclear industry organization the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said: "This determination initiates the most rigorous phase of an unprecedented licensing process that will be transparent to the public, with the state of Nevada, several affected units of local government and Indian tribes among its active participants."