Bipartisan majority for pro-Yucca Mountain bill

11 May 2018

The US House of Representatives yesterday passed a bill that would expedite licensing of the Yucca Mountain repository and provide for centralised interim storage of the country's used nuclear fuel. HR 3053 - the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2018 - was passed by 340 votes to 72.

The US House and Capitol (Image: Architect of the Capitol)

The bill was introduced in the House in June 2017 by John Shimkus, who represents the 15th District of Illinois. It amends the Nuclear Waste Policy Act which came into law in 1982, establishing federal responsibility for all civil used nuclear fuel and obliging the government - through the Department of Energy (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 federal repository.

The DOE in 2008 submitted a licence application for the Yucca Mountain repository to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), but decided to withdraw the application in 2010. The regulatory review of the application was suspended in 2011 but resumed in 2013 following an order by the US Court of Appeals.

HR 3053, a previous version of which was passed by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in June last year, preserves 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, until Yucca Mountain is ready to start receiving used fuel. Used fuel is currently stored at reactor sites around the country.

It includes steps to address federal land withdrawal and related management issues, updates the NRC licensing process and conditions for the repository, and limits activities relating to the development of a separate repository for storing high-level radioactive waste and used fuel from DOE's defence activities. It would also increase the statutory limit for used fuel to be placed in the repository to 110,000 tonnes from the present 70,000 tonnes.

The amendments also prevent the DOE from collecting any fees for the Nuclear Waste Fund until a final determination on the Yucca Mountain construction application is issued, and restricts the amount the DOE can collect in a given year. Under the 1982 act, nuclear utilities paid a levy of 0.1 cents per kWh of nuclear power generated into the fund to pay for the programme. The US Court of Appeal in 2013 ruled that the DOE must stop collecting the levy until such time as it was able to comply with the requirements of the 1982 act. The fund's balance is currently thought to stand at over USD38 billion.

An amendment to HR 3053, which would have required a consent-based siting process for determining a permanent nuclear waste repository, was rejected by 80 votes to 332.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Shimkus yesterday said it was "long past time" for the federal government to keep its promise to permanently dispose of used nuclear fuel and defence waste.

"The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act is a common-sense step in that direction, and we commend today's bipartisan vote in the House," they said in a joint statement. "We urge the Senate to quickly take up and pass this legislation to address this national priority."

Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said the vote represented "overdue progress" towards solving a long-standing issue.

"Earlier this year we marked a troubling milestone: 20 years of government failure to meet its legal obligation to take possession of used fuel. This abdication of responsibility has harmed electricity consumers and US taxpayers," she said.

Legislation could now be introduced into the US Senate later this year, NEI said.

"The industry recognises that the House and Senate have differing views on how to reform the used fuel programme," Korsnick said. "We encourage the two bodies to continue to advance their respective proposals and reach a compromise by the end of the year."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News