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Industry Applauds House Panel Pressure for Yucca Reports

Sept. 11, 2013—The nuclear energy industry applauded the efforts of a House committee in pressing the leaders of the NRC and DOE for information on restarting the Yucca Mountain repository licensing process.

NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane and Pete Lyons, the Energy Department’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy, testified Tuesday in a sometimes contentious, two-hour hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy on how the administration intends to move forward on the stalled license application.

"The big news coming out of today's hearing was the clear message from committee members that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should act immediately to complete the Yucca Mountain Safety Evaluation Reports,” NEI President and CEO Marvin Fertel said in a statement. “The nuclear energy industry agrees.”

Fertel pointed out that federal law requires licensing review for Yucca Mountain. “Consumers of electricity generated by America's 100 reactors deserve to know whether Yucca Mountain is a safe site for the permanent disposal of used nuclear fuel,” he said. They have contributed nearly $35 billion in fees and interest to the federal government specifically for used nuclear fuel management."

The hearing—which closely followed an Aug. 13 appeals court ruling that requires the NRC to complete the license approval process the agency had halted two years ago—focused on the status of the NRC’s partially complete, five-volume safety evaluation report on the proposed used fuel repository in Nevada. One volume has been released; the others, Macfarlane said, are in various stages of completion.

Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-Ill.) set the tone for the hearing in his opening remarks.

“In its decision, the [appeals] court rebuked the NRC for ‘simply flouting the law,’ something this committee recognized long ago.” Shimkus said. “How is it that an independent agency with a clear statutory responsibility is criticized by a federal court for having ‘no current intention of complying with the law’? Today’s hearing will be focused on looking forward, but we have to be cognizant of the agency actions that led to this situation and vigilant against resurgent efforts to undermine the statutory process.”

Shimkus noted that after the court ruling, the NRC issued an order on Aug. 30 asking participants in the Yucca Mountain licensing proceeding to submit comments within 30 days on how the agency should continue the process. “The NRC appears to again be stalling,” he said. “I want to be very clear: I strongly believe the NRC’s first order of business is to complete and release the Safety Evaluation Report.”

The committee’s desire to see the completion of the safety reports was clearly bipartisan, with Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Gene Green (D-Texas) and John Barrow (D-Ga.) echoing Shimkus and Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in asking Macfarlane to commit to releasing the documents.

Green also asked the NRC to re-assign to the restart effort the “best and same staff that was involved when the process was halted prematurely.”

Macfarlane said that in addition to asking the licensing participants for their views on steps forward, agency staff had also begun a concurrent effort “to gather pertinent information” on budget and staffing resources. In her opening statement to the panel and in response to subsequent follow-up questions, Macfarlane declined to say what the NRC would do next.

“Based on the input from the parties and the budget information provided by NRC offices, the commission will determine the path forward in the licensing process,” Macfarlane said. “Because the commission has not reached a decision on the path forward for the agency, it would be inappropriate for me to speculate about what the final direction will be.”

Macfarlane summarized the NRC’s licensing process. She noted that before the commission can make a final decision on the repository, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board must hear and rule on some 288 contentions. Other steps the agency would need to take before making a decision, she said, include reconstituting the Licensing Support Network—the NRC’s online database of license-related documents—and possibly dealing with appeals of ASLB rulings.

She added that while the agency has approximately $11 million available to work on the Yucca Mountain project, this would not be sufficient “to complete all of the necessary steps in this licensing process.”

Lyons countered the subcommittee’s interest in restarting the Yucca licensing process by expressing the Obama administration’s support for a new approach, as recommended by a government blue ribbon commission that studied nuclear waste management and outlined in a DOE strategy document released early this year.

Lyons said that when the administration took office, Yucca Mountain was already 20 years behind schedule, “with no end in sight.”

“It was clear that stalemate could continue indefinitely,” Lyons said. “Rather than continuing to spend billions of dollars more on a project that faces such strong opposition, the administration believes … a consent-based solution … is one that meets the country’s national and energy security needs and has the potential to gain the necessary public acceptance.”

Lyons noted that DOE has $16 million in unobligated funds for the Yucca Mountain project.

He said the administration backs development of a pilot facility for interim storage, initially of used fuel from shutdown reactors, rather than Yucca Mountain Doing that, he said, “provides a unique opportunity to build and demonstrate the capability to safely transport and store used nuclear fuel, and … make progress on demonstrating the federal commitment.”

Lyons added that the administration also supports a geologic repository for the disposal of nuclear waste.

“The administration,” he said, “is committed to advancing development of both interim storage and geologic disposal facility options in parallel, even though they may become operational at different times. The development of geologic disposal capacity is currently the most cost-effective way of permanently disposing of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste while minimizing the burden on future generations.”

A statement from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton following the hearing said the committee was looking forward to the monthly status reports that Macfarlane and Lyons committed to provide, outlining actions and expenditures the NRC and DOE would be taking regarding the Yucca license review.

A recorded video of the hearing is available on the committee website.