Yesterday, over 6 years after the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) an application for a license to construct the proposed Yucca Mountain high level radioactive waste repository and 4 years after the Secretary of Energy unilaterally declared the project unworkable and attempted to withdraw the license application, the NRC staff issued its completed Safety Evaluation Report (SER) addressing key aspects of the repository design and performance. On all counts, the NRC staff concluded that the repository satisfies NRC requirements.

Despite the Secretary’s efforts to halt the application review, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concluded in 2013 that the NRC is obligated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to continue its review of the Yucca Mountain license application at least to the extent of available appropriations. The NRC, which under a prior Chairman had attempted to halt all work on the safety review, was therefore obligated to move forward on the review. Volume 3 of the Yucca Mountain SER issued yesterday addresses whether DOE’s Total System Performance Assessment adequately demonstrates that the repository as designed will meet the long-term repository performance requirements in 10 C.F.R. Part 63. The NRC staff found DOE’s performance assessment evaluations to be in compliance with the regulatory requirements and that in all areas the regulatory performance objectives are satisfied, including regulatory limits for individual protection, human intrusion, and separate standards for groundwater protection. 

The NRC would not be in a position to issue a license for Yucca Mountain without completing the suspended contested hearing process in which the State of Nevada opposes the license. The NRC’s review processes could not be completed without adequate funding from Congress. However, divorced from stakeholder and political concerns, the NRC Staff SER is an important scientific and technical assessment of the feasibility and efficacy of spent nuclear fuel disposal in general, as well as the Yucca Mountain project in particular. The politics of Yucca Mountain, however, remain. Congressional calls for reviving the project began immediately after release of the NRC report. The outcome of the mid-term elections may also factor into resolution of this longstanding controversy.