WASHINGTON — Analysts at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday completed a safety review that gives Yucca Mountain generally positive marks, but stops short of recommending it be granted a license to operate as a nuclear waste site.
The report was released four days before the Obama administration released its 2016 fiscal budget with no money proposed for Yucca Mountain.
In the final pieces of a five-volume safety report, the agency staff said it has “reasonable assurance” the proposed repository could meet safety requirements to handle thousands of tons of highly radioactive spent fuel, insert them into rust-resistant canisters and inject those into the mountain 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The report comes on the heels of an NRC volume in October that concluded a combination of Yucca Mountain’s natural geology plus titanium tunnel drip shields “with reasonable expectation” could satisfy safety rules to keep the nuclear waste entombed and away from groundwater for periods up to a million years.
It was not an unqualified testimonial. After reviewing an 8,600-page Department of Energy application for the site, the NRC staff said it would propose conditions on any license.
Robert Halstead, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said some of the suggested license conditions could be “potentially very significant,” including flight restrictions over the site and requirements that certain waste canisters be qualified for repository operations.
And an NRC staff report issued last month pointed out the government does not have full control of the repository area and lacks the necessary water rights to operate the site. For that reason, the NRC said Thursday, the agency staff “is not recommending issuance of a construction authorization at this time.”
Completion of the long-awaited safety reports effectively tosses Yucca Mountain back to Capitol Hill. NRC leaders have said they would need more money from Congress to move to the next stage of license hearings.
The Yucca project once was a major Department of Energy undertaking but was mothballed by President Barack Obama in 2010. The NRC continues to work on it under a court order and then only until current funding runs out or if lawmakers replenish its budget. About $4.7 million is left as of Dec. 31, according to the NRC.
Taking its cue from Obama, the Department of Energy now says the project “is unworkable.”
The release of the final two volumes of the NRC staff “safety evaluation report” triggered fresh calls in Congress to revive Yucca Mountain. At the same time, Nevada lawmakers vowed to hold fast in the state’s fight against high level nuclear waste.
“Today’s report confirms that it is possible to safely dispose of nuclear waste in the repository at Yucca Mountain, and that the U.S. Department of Energy is able to safely operate the facility while the waste is being deposited,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of a Senate energy subcommittee.
“To continue to oppose Yucca Mountain because of radiation concerns is to ignore science,” Alexander said.
But, said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., “The NRC staff does not recommend authorizing construction of Yucca Mountain.”
“This project will never see the light of day and everyone should accept that and move on,” Reid said.
“The federal government needs Nevada’s water, land and resources before the project could ever move forward,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. “As Nevada’s United States senator, I will fight that from ever happening.”
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said the NRC studies “revealed substantive flaws in the DOE application. The reports do not change the fact that efforts to restart the failed Yucca Mountain project are a waste of time and resources.”
In the new fiscal budget, the Department of Energy proposes to spend $478 million in Nevada, a 3.4 percent increase from what Congress appropriated for this year.
Most of the spending is for activities related to nuclear security, stockpile stewardship, safety and counterterrorism at the Nevada National Security Site.