Proposed NRC Budget Includes Funding for Federal Spent Nuclear Fuel Repository in Nevada

Mar 20, 2019
Source: Wikipedia Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers two applications for interim spent nuclear fuel facilities, it is also asking Congress for $38 million so it can complete its review of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the final resting place for spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors and those from the U.S. Navy.

The money is part of a $921 million budget the NRC is proposing for fiscal year 2020. It was submitted to Congress earlier this month and is $10 million higher than the current operating budget. The NRC budget has decreased by more than $130 million since 2014. Since the NRC recovers approximately 90 percent of its budget from licensee fees, which are sent directly to the U.S. Treasury, the resulting net appropriation request is $161 million.

Details of the budget proposal, according to a press release issued March 11 by the federal agency, notes the $38 million for the Yucca Mountain repository is part of an overarching $165.7 million for nuclear materials and waste safety.

“Congress will have to decide whether to include that money in our funding bill,” said Neil Sheehan, public information officer for the NRC’s Region 1 office.

In a budget justification document posted to the NRC website earlier this week, the federal agency said the increase in resources for the materials and waste safety program to support activities for Yucca Mountain as the deep geological repository is somewhat offset by changes in other business areas. Those changes include resources for the spent fuel storage and transportation business line, which saw an increase in workload pertaining to license renewal applications and inspections for independent spent fuel storage installation pad construction. Resources for nuclear material users business, decommissioning and low-level waste business, and fuel facilities business all saw a decrease.

The development of a long-term repository for the permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel is the basis of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Five years later, in 1987, a series of amendments to the federal act designated Yucca Mountain as the sole focus for the Department of Energy when it came time to determining a location for a federal repository.

In 2002, the DOE determined Yucca Mountain, which is located less than 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas in Nye County, Nevada, was a suitable location for a federal repository. In 2010, the DOE rejected its own plans for a long-term repository, and in 2011 funding for Yucca Mountain was terminated. As a result, the only option for nuclear power plants is to store spent fuel from the reactor vessels onsite. That includes decommissioned or decommissioning power plants, such as the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Lacey Township.

In January, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, an arm of the NRC, heard oral arguments on requests for a public hearing to address questions and concerns regarding an interim spent nuclear fuel site application by Holtec International, the Camden-based energy technology company that is also seeking to purchase the defunct Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station. Federal officials received nearly a dozen filings for public hearings and petitions to intervene from 18 organizations in seven states.

“The interim repositories are viewed as a storage bridge until a permanent repository is opened,” Sheehan has said. “At this point, it is not clear when, or if, that will occur.”

In its license application for the Nex Mexico facility, Holtec is seeking authorization to store 5,000 metric tons of uranium (MTUs) in roughly 500 spent nuclear fuel canisters under a 40-year license. However, NRC staff noted in the Oct. 9 consolidated response to hearing requests on the repository that individual canisters vary in capacity. The 500 canisters proposed by Holtec have the potential to hold up to 8,680 MTUs from commercial nuclear reactors as well as a small quantity of spent mixed-oxide fuel.

The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board last month said it would render a decision on standing and contention admissibility in the New Mexico application within 45 days of its review of all motions and contentions. The board may hold adjudicative hearings on major licensing actions by the NRC but is independent of the NRC staff. A board’s rulings may be appealed to the commission, a five-member board that sets NRC policy.

The NRC last year resumed reviewing an application for an interim site in Texas after it received two letters, dated June 8 and July 19, from Interim Storage Partners, a joint venture between Waste Control Specialists and Orano CIS LLC. The application review was temporarily suspended after an April 2017 letter from the former applicant, Waste Control Specialists.

In April 2016, the NRC received a letter from WCS proposing to build a consolidated interim storage facility on approximately 14,900 acres on a site in western Andrews County, Texas. The company operates facilities on the site that process and store low-level waste and mixed water. The facility also disposes of both hazardous waste and toxic waste, according to the federal registry notice published by the NRC.

— Gina G. Scala

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