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Congress Shows Bipartisan Support for Completing Yucca Mountain Report

Sept. 30, 2013—A bipartisan group of 81 members of Congress led by Rep. John Dingell, the Democratic chairman emeritus of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, last week urged the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete and issue its safety evaluation reports on the Energy Department’s license application for a used nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The reports document the NRC’s safety review of the application.

“We hope that the NRC will act as good stewards of the funds already appropriated and accomplish as much as possible and start by completing the SER,” the legislators said in a Sept. 27 letter to NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane. The letter was signed by 50 Republicans and 31 Democrats.

The Obama administration terminated the Yucca Mountain project in 2010 while the Energy Department’s license application was still under NRC review. The NRC stopped work on it in September 2011, citing insufficient funding. The states of Washington and South Carolina, Aiken County, S.C., state public utility regulators, and others sought a court order to force the NRC to resume its review.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held the case in abeyance for more than a year to give Congress an opportunity to clarify its intent. Seeing no action, the court on Aug. 13 ordered the NRC to complete its evaluation of the application and “issue a final decision granting or denying the license.”

In its ruling the court said the NRC is “under a legal obligation to continue the licensing process” and identified the agency as having “at least $11.1 million in appropriated funds” to do so.

At a Sept. 10 hearing, several members of Congress pressed Macfarlane on steps the agency is taking to comply with the court order, querying her especially about the agency’s plans concerning the safety evaluation reports. “Releasing the SER is the next step in the NRC’s process, the NRC has the money to do it [and] a federal court has ruled that the NRC must proceed,” said John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who chairs a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee (see Nuclear Energy Overview, Sept. 11).

In their letter to Macfarlane, the members cited her response to a question for the record from a 2012 hearing and her testimony in September. “You indicated your willingness to follow NRC procedures in making a final determination on the Yucca Mountain licensing issue,” they said. “Now that a writ of mandamus has been granted, we ask that you follow through on that commitment and focus the limited available NRC resources on completion of the safety evaluation reports.”

“It is our firm belief that completion of the SER will settle the debate and provide scientific data confirming what we have known for many years—that Yucca Mountain is a safe location for a permanent repository,” the members wrote. “We understand that the NRC does not have the funding to complete the entire licensing process for Yucca Mountain. Given that limitation, we urge the NRC to do the most with the little it has remaining.” 

Previously, the NRC estimated it would take six to eight months and approximately $6.5 million to complete and issue the SERs. The agency is currently revising its estimate.