Sent to NRC Thirty years after the U.S. government began assessing if a remote ridge in the Mojave Desert 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nev., was suitable for the nation’s first permanent deep geologic nuclear waste repository, the Department of Energy (DOE) has formally filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a license to proceed with construction. The 17-volume, 8,600-page application that the NRC received by truck on June 3 details the DOE’s plan to safely isolate spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in tunnels deep underground at Yucca Mountain.

The submission marks an apex in the Yucca Mountain saga: For the first time since Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) in 1982, the focus will shift away from the DOE and to the NRC. Now, the NRC must review the DOE’s plan and decide whether the repository can safely contain 77,000 tons of highlevel waste, including 57,000 tons of commercial spent fuel that is being currently stored at 121 temporary locations in 39 states across the nation (Figure 1). The regulatory body will accomplish this in two phases. First, it will conduct a technical licensing review to assess the technical merits of the repository design and decide whether to permit construction.

This phase will involve more than 100 employees with expertise in everal scientific disciplines, including geochemistry, hydrology, climatology, structural geology, volcanology, and seismology. The second phase involves hearing challenges concerning the technical and legal aspects of the DOE’s application before the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards. As long as the NRC deems the DOE’s application sufficiently complete, it will make a decision based on technical merits in about three years. If the construction license is approved, then the DOE would be required to request a license to receive and possess high-level waste at Yucca Mountain, and this application would go through another round of NRC reviews and hearings.

The DOE, which has already spent $9 billion on the project, anticipates that the “receive and possess” license will be awarded in March 2013. If all goes well, the best achievable date to begin operations is March 2017. Driven now more than ever by mounting interest in a U.S. nuclear power revival, the Yucca Mountain repository may just

The DOE filed a formal application with the NRC for a license to begin construction of a high-level nuclear waste repository deep within Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The application defines how the facility can safely store the waste for at least 10,000 years.

come to fruition—and if does, it will be one of the first in the world. Yucca Mountain, which lies on federal land, is a rare but optimum location for a repository, the DOE says, because it brings together natural barriers and design elements. Similar long-term solutions to store high-level nuclear waste are being sought around the world. Presentations at a 2006 international conference on the management of spent fuel from nuclear power reactors in Vienna organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed a broad international consensus that deep geological disposal was seen as the most viable long-term solution for the disposition of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

In addition to the U.S., Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK have all performed detailed studies, or characterizations, drilling numerous boreholes and exploratory shafts and ramps in underground research laboratories. Besides Yucca Mountain, among the repositories planned that may soon be realized are ones in Sweden, Finland, and Canada. Sweden has operated an interim repository for spent fuel since 1985 at Oskashamn and recently expanded it to accommodate fuel from the country’s 10 reactors. The used fuel, which is being stored underwater in an underground rock cavern for some 40 to 50 years, will be encapsulated in copper and stainless steel canisters for final emplacement packed with bentonite clay in 1,640-foot granite repository.

To date, two potential sites have been identified for this final repository, and both will now undergo more detailed site investigation. Meanwhile, the Canadian government is reviewing Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG’s) proposal that a low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste repository be built on the Bruce Nuclear Site in Ontario.If the government approves the license, OPG could begin using the deep geologic repository by 2025. Among the challenges the DOE faces in implementing the repository at Yucca Mountain is a lack of public support. The DOE’s formal application to the NRC in June sparked blistering critiques from Nevada officials and resident groups.

As well as filing multiple lawsuits against the DOE in the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals, Nevada governor Jim Gibbons has banded together the state’s congressional delegation to oppose the “dump,” saying that it poses too many potential problems, including “groundwater contamination,” transportation of radioactive waste, and the federal government’s encroachment on state rights.” And House Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.),a long-time opponent of the project, recently led a congressional funding slash for the project. In contrast, the development of deep geologic repositories is lauded in some parts of the world, where it is seen as a permanent solution to a long-term problem.

In Sweden, for example, more than 75% of residents who live around the two identified potential sites supported having the final repository in their locality, an independent April 2008 poll found. And in Finland, where (as in the U.S.) nuclear waste management is governed by a statute that requires permanent disposition, an approved plan to store spent fuel from the country’s four reactors is already in place— and has national and local support.

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