US administration urged to address waste issue

02 May 2017

As the US Congress begins hearings on proposals to amend 35-year-old legislation on nuclear waste policy, the US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has called on the administration to facilitate the licensing of the Yucca Mountain repository and private interim storage facilities.

In a 21 April letter to US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, NEI CEO Maria Korsnick asked the administration to consider several key issues regarding the USA's used fuel management program prior to finalising budget priorities for fiscal 2018.

US nuclear waste management policy is enshrined in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which established federal responsibility for all civil used fuel and obliged the government - through the Department of Energy (DOE) - to begin removing used fuel from nuclear facilities by 1998 for disposal in a federal facility. The act was amended in 1987 to designate Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the sole site for the repository for 70,000 tonnes of high-level waste.

To fund the repository, utilities paid a levy of 0.1 cents per kWh of nuclear power generated into the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF). In 2013, following a legal challenge by utilities and regulators, the US Court of Appeals ordered the DOE to cease collection of payments into the fund because of the government's failure to meet its obligations to remove utilities' used fuel. It ruled that the DOE should not resume collecting payments until either it could comply with the current legislation or an alternative waste management plan is enacted by Congress. Collection of payments ceased in May 2014.

Korsnick said the previous US administration's practice of continuing to budget $350 million for collection of the annual fees was an "inequity" against the nuclear industry that must be addressed and corrected. "A clear reading of the court decision indicates that there is no basis to budget for collection of the annual fees if there are no funds currently appropriated to implement any program," she said.

The US nuclear industry has paid more than $20 billion into the NWF, which as of September 2016 stood at over $38 billion accruing over $1.5 billion per year in interest. Korsnick said the industry believed that the fee should not be reinstated until the expenditures for the program exceed the fund's annual investment income, and the DOE can demonstrate that reinstatement is necessary to cover the full costs over the life of the program.

Licensing action

The DOE submitted a construction licence application for the Yucca Mountain repository to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2008, but following 2009's presidential elections the US administration subsequently decided to abort the project, appointing a high-level Blue Ribbon Commission to come up with alternative strategies.

The NRC terminated licensing activities for Yucca Mountain in 2011, but in August 2013 was ordered to resume work on its technical and environmental reviews of the application by the US Court of Appeals. NRC staff completed and published the final volumes of the safety evaluation report in January 2015 and completed and issued an Environmental Impact Statement supplement in May 2016. The adjudicatory hearing, which must be completed before a licensing decision can be made, remains suspended.

With no federal repository available for the DOE to meet its legal obligation to remove used fuel, utilities have been faced with storing their used fuel on-site, with some needing to supplement used fuel pools with dry cask storage, at further expense to utilities beyond the levy they have already paid into the NWF. A number of utilities have successfully sued the federal government over its failure to meet its obligation, with compensation totalling some $1 billion awarded by US courts.

Korsnick called for the NRC to be given sufficient funding to complete the Yucca Mountain licence application, and for the regulator to move forward on applications submitted for private interim storage facilities. She said interim storage would be needed given the length of time a final repository will take to construct, and would also allow sites, including those where reactors are decommissioned, to "re-purpose" land currently used for on-site fuel storage.

Finally, Korsnick asked the administration to review the mechanisms of the NWF to provide the funding certainty needed for a revised waste management program. "Although we fully understand that this would have difficult budget ramifications, industry has acted in good faith throughout the process and we believe this is essential to getting the program back on track," she said.

"The lack of a strong used fuel management program has affected public acceptance of nuclear power for far too long. It is time for the US government to live up to the commitments made when commercial nuclear power first began," Korsnick concluded.

Congressional hearing

Korsnick's letter preceded the start of a congressional hearing on draft legislation to reform the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Environment.

The hearing, chaired by John Shimkus, discussed the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017, which aims to provide practical reforms to US waste management policy to ensure that the government can fulfil its obligations to dispose of used fuel and high-level waste. "The draft bill begins a long overdue discussion regarding reform to ensure necessary funding to implement the program," Korsnick said.

The draft legislation builds on previous work by the committee, including seven hearings held by the subcommittee during the 114th (2015-2016) US Congress. The amendments it contains would update provisions for monitored retrievable storage facilities, thereby helping to move forward consolidated interim storage; address various issues connected with the proposed Yucca Mountain permanent repository, including land withdrawal, water access, planning limitations and transport routes to the facility; permit potential host communities to engage in discussions on benefits without this being considered and expression of consent to the facility; and reform procedures for assessing, collecting and using the Nuclear Waste Fund.

"The committee has heard from scores of expert witnesses over the past six years about challenges and opportunities to advance our nation’s nuclear waste management policy. This discussion draft reflects what we learned through those hearings, oversight activities and related work," Shimkus told the hearing. "And today we began the process of taking input from all stakeholders involved on this draft. Our goal here is to identify the right reforms to ensure we can fulfil the government’s obligation to dispose of our nation’s nuclear material," he said.

In a letter to the Energy and Commerce Committee dated 25 April, the Energy Secretary, who visited the Yucca Mountain site in March, said a "robust interim storage program" should be part of the near-term solution for managing used fuel but a geologic repository was the best long-term solution for isolating used fuel and high-level waste. "The importance of resuming the licensing process became even clearer during my recent tour of the Yucca Mountain site," Perry said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News