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News Extra: US commissioners call for action on used nuclear fuel

10 April 2018

Twenty years after the passing of the deadline for the US federal government to start accepting nuclear waste for disposal, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) has called on lawmakers to support funding for the review process for the Yucca Mountain repository licence application.

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The US Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established federal responsibility for all civil used nuclear fuel and obliged the government to begin removing used fuel from nuclear facilities by 1998 for disposal in a federal facility. Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, was in 1987 designated as the sole site for the repository. The Department of Energy (DOE) in 2008 submitted a construction and operation licence application for Yucca Mountain to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). However, the US administration decided to abort the project following 2009's presidential election.

In August 2013 the federal Appeals Court ordered the NRC to resume its review of DOE's application following an appeal that was brought by NARUC, two states and others who argued that NRC ignored its statutory responsibility in terminating the review.

NARUC said the government's failure to begin accepting used nuclear fuel has resulted in more than $5 billion dollars in court-awarded damage settlements, at taxpayers' expense. Damages could reach more than $29 billion by 2022 and up to $500 million annually after 2022, it said. It called on the US administration and Congress to take immediate action to support the review of the Yucca Mountain license application.

"It has been 36 years since the Nuclear Waste Policy Act became law and 20 years since the government defaulted on its obligation. We still have no nuclear repository, and worse yet, we don’t even have the semblance of a nuclear waste programme," NARUC president John Betkoski said yesterday. "Taxpayers and ratepayers have poured literally billions into the federal nuclear waste programme and the liability costs continue to increase every day we delay. Moreover, the funding process is broken."

NARUC, based in Washington, DC, is a non-profit organisation dedicated representing state public service commissions that regulate energy, telecommunications, power, water and transportation utilities.

In 2017, lawmakers in the US House of Representatives debated resurrecting the stalled Yucca Mountain project.

Representative John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, has proposed draft legislation to restart the licensing of Yucca Mountain. The government has already spent billions of dollars for initial construction of the project, which has been pending since Ronald Reagan was president.

Former President Barack Obama opposed Yucca and stopped its licensing process in 2010. But President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget provides $120 million to restart licensing and for development of interim nuclear waste sites until Yucca can be completed.

More details about the Trump administration’s support of Yucca could come when a broader budget is released in May. Currently, spent nuclear fuel, which can be deadly if left unshielded, is stored at reactors across the country, first in cooling ponds and then in thick casks.

The Yucca site itself, about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Las Vegas, faces a cumbersome and costly licensing process that could take years to complete and questions from critics about how long spent fuel can remain without radiation leaking into an aquifer.

Yucca supporters say there is little groundwater at the desert site and what is there is contained by barriers and does not flow to any river or drinking water supply.

An even trickier problem will be getting the spent fuel to Yucca mountain safely by train and truck from nuclear reactors sites all across the country.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has pointed out that nuclear waste has been transported safely in the country for more than 40 years, which Yucca backers are quick to cite. Shimkus, whose state of Illinois has more reactors than any other, says Yucca is ideal because of its remoteness.

But the entire Congressional delegation of Nevada, where there are no nuclear power reactors, opposes Yucca.

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