Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Yucca Mountain Safe to Store Nuclear Waste

Barbara Hollingsworth | January 30, 2015 | 2:22pm EST
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Yucca Mountain, located about 90 miles north of Las Vegas, Nev. (Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

( –  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has released the final two volumes of a five-volume safety report that concludes that Nevada’s Yucca Mountain meets all of its technical and safety requirements for the disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

“With reasonable assurance, subject to proposed conditions, DOE’s [Department of Energy] application meets the NRC’s regulatory requirements” for the disposal of “high-level nuclear waste,” the regulatory agency announced Thursday.

However, “completion of the safety evaluation report does not represent an agency decision on whether to authorize construction,” the NRC noted, adding that DOE “has not met certain land and water rights requirements” and that other environmental and regulatory hurdles remain.

Republicans in Congress expressed hope that progress can now continue on the creation of a permanent repository at the site for over 70,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste now in temporary storage.

“Today’s report settles it: To continue to oppose Yucca Mountain because of radiation concerns is to ignore science,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, said in a statement on Thursday.

“This report says that Yucca Mountain would meet all of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s performance requirements for safe operation. Combined with previous reports, the science is clear that Yucca Mountain would meet all safety requirements related to radiation.

“There is no reason Congress shouldn’t make Yucca Mountain part of the solution to end the stalemate on nuclear waste – paving the way for nuclear power to be a larger source of the clean, cheap, reliable electricity we need to power our 21st-century economy,” Alexander added.

“With the SER [Safety Evaluation Report] now complete, we’re one step closer to keeping the federal government’s promise to build a permanent repository for nuclear waste. We now know from this independent government review that Yucca Mountain is safe and can meet the technical standards,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), chairman of the House Environment and the Economy Subcommittee.

“I again commend the NRC staff scientists and engineers for their years of thorough work on this safety evaluation. Completing the SER is a milestone achievement, but there is still a long road ahead.

“I am eager to work with my colleagues in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle this Congress to ensure the NRC, DOE, and the State of Nevada have all the resources and incentives they need to keep moving forward on this national asset,” Shimkus said.

But Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) said that the report only "reiterate[s] what we have known for years. Yucca Mountain is inherently flawed...because the Department of Energy lacks the required land and water rights and has no reason to expect that it will obtain them in the future.

"This project will never see the light of day and everyone should accept that and move on," Reid added.

Since there is no permanent disposal facility, spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear reactors – “enough to fill a football field 17 meters deep,” according to a 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report – is currently being stored at dozens of above-ground sites. GAO expects the amount of radioactive waste to double to 140,000 tons by 2055 when all of the currently operating nuclear reactors are retired.

Pool storing spent nuclear fuel. (Wikipedia)

Yucca Mountain, which is located about 90 miles north of Las Vegas, is in a remote area that formerly contained the Nevada Test Site, where more than 800 nuclear weapons were tested by the military during the Cold War.

The area is arid and geologically stable, with the odds of a volcanic eruption during the next 10,000 years estimated at one in 70 million

In 2002, after a three-decade search and more than 60 public hearings, Yucca Mountain was designated by a bipartisan majority in Congress as the nation's sole permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

However, the Obama administration opposed the long-planned project.

In 2010, then NRC chairman and former Reid aide Gregory Jaczko terminated the licensing process DOE had begun two years earlier and directed NRC staff to begin “the orderly closure” of all Yucca Mountain activities, including completion of the safety report.

The regulatory agency was sued by Washington State, the State of South Carolina, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and Nye County, Nevada for allegedly violating the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1983.

In 2013, the D.C. Court of Appeals sided with plaintiffs in the lawsuit and ruled that the NRC "has continued to violate the law governing the Yucca Mountain licensing process.”

After noting that “this case raises significant questions about the scope of the Executive’s authority to disregard federal statutes,” the appeals court ordered the NRC to complete its safety analysis of Yucca Mountain as required under the statute.

“The President may not decline to follow a statutory mandate or prohibition simply because of policy objections,” the court ruled, or use “political guesswork about future congressional appropriations as a basis for violating existing legal mandates.”

As a result of that order, Volumes 2 and 5 of the Yucca Mountain Safety Evaluation were released on Thursday. Volumes 3 and 4 were published last year. The study concluded that nuclear waste stored 1,000 feet beneath Yucca Mountain would be safe for a million years.

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