Nuclear Regulatory Commission Licensing Process

    The NRC Board of Commissioners. From left, Chairman Richard A. Meserve, Greta Joy Discus, Nils J. Diaz, Edward McGaffigan, Jr., and Jeffrey S. Merrifield. Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission
    Now that Congress has approved the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, the next step for the Department of Energy is to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a license to build the repository.

    In This Issue:
    Nuclear Regulatory Commission Licensing Process

    NRC Key Technical Issues

    DOE to Plan Waste Transport

    Utah Senators Back Yucca Mountain

    Experts Disagree on Yucca Capacity

    Nuclear News in Brief

    Special Insert: Price-Anderson Act
    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, made up of a five-member appointed board and staff, is a federal agency that regulates all of the nation’s nuclear facilities except the nuclear weapons complex. All commercial, industrial, and academic entities must apply for a license from the NRC before they can build any facility containing or involving the use of nuclear materials. This includes nuclear power plants, research reactors, scientific labs, and facilities that produce or store radioactive materials other than those for nuclear weapons research and manufacture. The NRC also licenses transportation casks used for storing and moving nuclear waste.

    Before any construction can begin on the Yucca Mountain repository, the project must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The licensing process can be viewed in three parts. First, the DOE must submit a license application for a construction authorization. The repository construction authorization, if granted, would allow the DOE to begin building surface facilities for waste handling and the first group of many tunnels for waste emplacement. When sufficient facilities have been built above ground for waste handling and a small percentage of the eventual number of tunnels are complete, the DOE will submit an application amendment for a license to operate the repository. Currently they expect the NRC to okay that license amendment in 2010, enabling DOE to begin the national transport of waste to Yucca Mountain.

    It is expected that waste would continue to be transported to Nevada and emplaced in the repository for about 30 years. During that time additional surface facilities could be built and tunnel construction would continue as waste filled up the original drifts. Under current regulations, the repository must remain open and the waste must be retrievable for at least 50 years. Design options are still under consideration ranging from 50 to 300 years of monitoring and/or ventilation.

    At the time that the decision is made to close the repository, another license application amendment is submitted to the NRC for closure.

    The NRC licensing process is expected to be:
    • Once the License application is received from DOE, the NRC staff will do an "acceptance review" to determine if all required information is included. This is scheduled to take 90 days. If the required information is not all there, staff will request the DOE to provide what is needed. Once all information is there, the application can be docketed and the three-year licensing clock begins.
    • Then the NRC staff begins its substantive review under applicable regulations and review guidance leading to staff determination of whether there is "reasonable expectation" that the repository will meet applicable safety standards of the NRC and EPA. The findings become the "Safety Evaluation Report."
    • In addition, NRC staff will review DOE's Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) to determine to what extent it can be adopted by NRC and/or if supplements or revisions are required. If the FEIS is not made adoptable by DOE then the NRC staff must prepare an EIS appropriate to the final decision for construction authorization.
    • A public hearing will be held and presided over by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), an independent entity within the NRC. The hearing will cover disputed issues or contentions of DOE's license application deemed admissible by NRC. The State of Nevada and other parties granted permission to be involved may cross-examine witnesses who are proponents of the application and bring in expert witnesses to testify. After conclusion of the hearing, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board’s three-member panel will come to a decision on whether to grant the license. The ASLB’s decision can be appealed, in which case the five Commissioners of the NRC will have the final say.


    Public involvement in the Yucca Mountain licensing process is limited. In the pre-licensing stage, the public was invited to comment on NRC’s proposed licensing criteria for the Yucca Mountain repository. However, the full licensing-stage involves little public participation.

    Members of the public can participate in what is called a ‘limited appearance’ at the public hearing given by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. During the ‘limited appearance,’ members of the Board will listen to statements from any public citizen who wishes to participate. However, neither the ASLB nor the NRC are required to take those comments into account while making the license decision.

    Members of the public are also allowed to attend and observe the hearing, which will take place over a period of months, perhaps in more than one location. No locations have currently been set, but the NRC says it will make transcripts of the hearing available to the public. The NRC will also consider whether to broadcast the hearing via closed circuit TV to several locations around the state, as well as allowing citizens to participate in limited appearance via satellite. Although the hearing is not likely to take place before 2006, NRC staff says it could make location and broadcast decisions as early as mid-2003.
    In the meantime, if concerned citizens have any questions about the licensing process, they can contact Nuclear Regulatory Commission On-Site Representatives at their Las Vegas office: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, High-Level Waste On-site Representatives Office, P.O. Box 371048, Las Vegas, Nevada, 89137-1048, telephone: (702) 794– 5046. Comments can also be submitted online at


    According to NRC Chairman Richard Meserve, the NRC is currently working with DOE to provide guidance on developing the license application. Although DOE is technically required by a 1982 nuclear waste law to submit their application within 90 days of Congressional approval of the repository (by mid-October 2002), the earliest DOE says they will be ready is December 2004.

    After that, the NRC has three years (with a possible one-year extension) to review the construction authorization application before rendering a decision on whether to grant DOE the license. Historically, the NRC has never denied a license to any major nuclear power entity such as nuclear utilities and independent spent fuel storage sites.


    The NRC is also responsible for the safety of casks to be used to transport nuclear waste across the country. So far, full-scale testing of the casks has yet to be completed; only smaller cask models and computer simulations have been used. However, the NRC currently plans a limited full-scale cask testing process in 2004. The details of the plan are not yet known.

    Technical Issues

    To help organize its review of the Yucca Mountain license application, the staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has established nine key technical issues concerning the performance of the repository.

    These topics are the most important to understanding the longterm capability of a repository at Yucca Mountain to protect public health, safety and the environment.

    1. Unsaturated and saturated zone flow under isothermal conditions: How does water move above and below a potential repository at Yucca Mountain?

    2. Thermal effects on flow: How does the heat generated by nuclear waste affect the movement of water in the immediate area of the potential repository?

    3. Container life and source term: How long do we expect the containers and waste forms to last? What will happen to the waste as the containers and waste forms wear away?

    4. Evolution of the near field environment: How do water and heat affect the chemical environment of the containers, waste forms, and the immediate area around the repository?

    5. Radionuclide transport: How do radioactive elements released from degraded waste move away from the repository?

    6. Repository design and thermal mechanical effects: How do engineering design, construction, and operation of a repository affect short- and long-term repository safety?

    7. Structural deformation and seismicity: How do geologic features and events, such as fractures and earthquakes, affect repository safety?

    8. Igneous activity: How likely is it that volcanic eruptions or igneous intrusions will disrupt the repository, and what would be the potential consequences to people and the environment?

    9. Total system performance assessment and integration: How will the entire system of engineered and natural barriers work together to retain waste so that the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain will comply with safety and environmental standards?


    DOE to Start Waste Transportation Planning

    The Department of Energy is accelerating nuclear waste transportation plans in an attempt to meet the 2010 deadline set for the opening of the Yucca Mountain repository. Transportation officials are currently working on transportation route selection, and Secretary Spencer Abraham is expected to unveil a “National Transportation Plan” in 2003.

    Yucca Mountain Project Chief Margaret Chu told the National Academy of Sciences in late July that the Department of Energy (DOE) has an “extremely tight” schedule and plans to make up time along the way. She said over the next eight years the Department will identify the exact routes to be used, prepare state and local emergency response teams, and construct a $900 million rail line to Yucca Mountain despite Nevada’s objections.

    The State, however, insists that DOE follow the rules throughout the transportation planning process. In a statement issued by the Nuclear Waste Project Office, State officials argue that DOE must follow the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which requires federal agencies to prepare Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) that evaluate alternatives before decisions are made. NEPA also calls for public involvement in the federal decision making process.

    The State is urging DOE to develop several drafts of a transportation EIS and to incorporate public input throughout the process. The State says the Department should allow lengthy EIS public comment periods, from six months to a year, after each draft of EIS documents are released. DOE should also hold formal public hearings in states and cities along the transportation routes.

    The Department of Energy, however, is trying to meet the 2010 deadline by using a “modular” approach that calls for shipping waste to Yucca Mountain while the repository is still under construction.Waste would be stored on the surface and moved into the tunnels in “phases” as construction is completed. “Instead of building a whole house at one time, we build part of the house in order to begin receiving waste,” says Chu.

    Besides having the repository built on time, Chu also has ambitions to reduce the project’s hefty $58 billion “life-cycle” price tag. Whether Chu accomplishes her goals remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: State officials in Nevada will continue to challenge DOE at every step, demanding that the Department adheres to all public laws and federal regulations concerning nuclear waste transportation.

    Utah Senators Promised Yucca Mountain-
    Skull Valley Trade-off

    Abraham, Bennett, and Hatch
    Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, left, with Utah Senators Robert Bennett and Orrin Hatch outside the White House after their meeting on July 8th, 2002.
    Despite strong hopes that Utah Senators Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett would support Nevada’s fight to kill the Yucca Mountain Project on Capitol Hill, both Senators announced the day before the vote that they would support the nuclear waste repository. Hatch and Bennett made their decision after meeting with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who promised to help derail efforts to store nuclear waste on the Goshute Indian Reservation in Skull Valley, Utah (45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City). “My message is, in short, that if Yucca Mountain moves ahead, sites such as the Utah site will not move ahead,” Abraham told them.

    In a July 8 letter to Senator Hatch, Secretary Abraham promised that Private Fuel Storage (PFS), the consortium of 8 nuclear power utilities that has applied to build and run the Skull Valley storage facility, would not receive federal funding or assistance with the project. “...the Nuclear Waste Policy Act authorizes DOE to provide funding and financial assistance only for shipments of spent fuel to a facility construction under that Act,” said Abraham in the letter. “Because the PFS/Goshute facility in Utah would be constructed and operated outside the scope of the Act, the Department will not fund or otherwise provide financial assistance for waste storage, nor can we monitor the safety precautions the private facility may install.”

    Secretary Abraham’s letter urged Senator Hatch vote for the Yucca Mountain resolution. “...I think the test course for you to pursue would be to vote for permanent storage at Yucca Mountain. In my view, this would greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the chances that this material will end up in Utah.”

    Secretary Abraham’s arguments successfully swayed the formerly undecided Utah senators. “I would rather [nuclear waste] pass through Utah than stay in Utah,” Senator Bennett told the press.

    Private Fuel Storage, LLCHowever, Private Fuel Storage spokeswoman Sue Martin told the Salt Lake Tribune that the Skull Valley storage will be needed no matter what happens with Yucca Mountain. She said nuclear plants in 35 states are running out of on-site storage and must move waste soon if they are to keep producing electricity. The earliest Yucca Mountain could be open is 2010, while the Goshute Storage Facility, if granted a license later this year, could be operational by 2005.

    Martin also pointed out that Private Fuel Storage had never planned to tap federal funds set aside for nuclear waste disposal. In fact, the very reason PFS is pursuing private storage at Skull Valley is because several nuclear utilities have lost confidence in the government’s promise to dispose of high level waste.

    Each member of the PFS consortium owns nuclear power plants. According to Private Fuel Storage, all of these companies are considering storing spent fuel at the PFS Goshute facility until the federal government has a permanent repository ready.
    The companies are:

    • Xcel Energy
    • Genoa Fuel Tech
    • American Electric Power
    • Southern California Edison
    • Southern Nuclear Company
    • First Energy
    • Entergy
    • Florida Power and Light

    Nonetheless, Senators Hatch and Bennett hope that lack of federal funding will be a strong enough incentive for nuclear utilities to hold out for the Yucca Mountain repository. On July 9, Hatch and Bennett were two of the 60 Senators who voted to override Nevada’s veto. Reflecting on his vote in Favor of Yucca Mountain, Senator Hatch said, “This is the best we can do,” Senator Hatch said. “I don't feel good about this at all. These are our neighbors to the west in Nevada. I wish I didn't have to vote this way.” But in the end, Senators Hatch and Bennett seemed to believe that a vote for Yucca Mountain was a vote against Skull Valley.


    In a related story, a U.S. judge ruled in late July that several Utah laws designed to keep nuclear waste out of the state are illegal. The Utah legislature had passed a package of laws regulating nuclear waste and imposing large fees on wastestorage business. But U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell said it was a federal issue beyond the reach of state lawmakers. She said Private Fuel Storage has a right to seek a federal license without state interference.

    Campbell’s ruling prohibits Utah from enforcing the antinuclear waste laws and removes financial obstacles for PFS. The state had tried to impose a $5 million license application fee and a requirement that PFS pay a “transaction fee” equal to 75% of the value of its contracts.

    The state of Utah also challenged the contract between the tribe and Private Fuel Storage, saying it was not properly approved by the Goshutes. Campbell, however, ruled that the contract is a tribal matter and does not fall under state jurisdiction. Utah Governor Mike Leavitt said the state would appeal Campbell’s decisions. The ruling could set an important precedent for Nevada antinuclear laws.

    Experts Disagree on Yucca Mountain Capacity

    Current plans for the Yucca Mountain repository do not include enough space to hold all the liquid radioactive waste to be produced by the federal government.

    The liquid waste will be converted to solid glass logs before disposal. DOE now estimates that only a third of the 23,000 glass cylinders will fit based on the repository’s current legal capacity of 77,000 tons.

    DOE spokesman Joe Davis says that Yucca Mountain is physically able to hold all nuclear waste to be produced. All that’s needed is Congressional approval to expand the legal capacity.

    Source: Las Vegas Review Journal 9/22/02

    In Brief . . . . Recent Nuclear News

    A volcanic eruption at Yucca Mountain... could do more damage than previously thought, possibly forcing radioactive waste from its burial site to the surface. If long-dormant volcanoes near the dump sprang back to life, molten rock moving at up to 600 mph could fill the repository within hours according to an article in the July issue of Geophysical Research Letters. (Las Vegas Review Journal 8/1/02)

    DOE told to use taxpayer money... A federal appeals court has ruled that billions of dollars in damages that the Energy Department is likely to owe to nuclear reactor owners for DOE’s failure to store nuclear waste will be paid by taxpayers, not ratepayers. Estimates of damages are from $2 billion to $60 billion. The court ruled that Nuclear Waste Fund cannot be used by DOE to pay damages to the utilities. (New York Times 9/26/02)

    Test Site considered for plutonium pits.... The Nevada Test Site is one of five government facilities being considered by DOE for a new plant to manufacture plutonium pits that form the core of nuclear weapons. A final decision is expected in 2004. The other sites being considered are Carlsbad, NM near the WIPP site; Los Alamos, NM; the Pantex plant in Amarillo, TX, and the Savannah River site in SC. Previously the pits were made at Rocky Flats near Denver. That facility was closed due to contamination. (Las Vegas Review Journal 9/27/02)

    Water level not affected by DOE pumping... The level of ground water south of Yucca Mountain is not declining, says a study by U.S. Geological Survey. DOE funded the study to find out what effect its groundwater pumping was having on the region. ( Las Vegas Sun 10/4/02)

    Court agrees to hear three Yucca Lawsuits together....Nevada’s request to combine three lawsuits related to the federal government’s push to construct a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain was granted by a federal appeals court. The suits challenge DOE’s site suitability rules, environmental impact statement, EPA’s radiation standard, and NRC’s licensing rule. The DC court of appeals is expected to hear arguments in all three cases in September of 2003.(Inside Energy 11/14/02)

    Price-Anderson Partially Renewed by Congress... Congress has renewed the provisions of the Price-Anderson Act that protect DOE contractors at government facilities in case of an accident. Provisions related to insurance for commercial nuclear power plants were not extended. The nuclear industry needs the extension for construction of new nuclear power plants. (Inside Energy 11/18/02)
    Emergency response training questioned... At a Nevada Legislative Committee on High-Level Radioactive waste, Senator Lawrence Jacobsen questioned DOE project manager Russ Dyer about transportation planning. Dyer stated that it would be 2003 before DOE has a transportation plan. Then three or four years before 2010, equipment and training reviews would begin at the state level. Veteran volunteer firefighter Jacobsen said Nevada volunteer firefighters and paramedics are concerned because they feel that they do not have adequate training to handle an accident involving radioactive materials. (Las Vegas Sun 10/10/02)

    The names have been changed... DOE’s Las Vegas office in charge of Yucca Mountain is now the Office of Repository Development (ORD.) The new name reflects the shift from research to development. The previous name was the Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Office (YMSCO). . . . W. John Arthur III, a DOE manager from the WIPP project in New Mexico, will become chief of site development and licensing in Las Vegas in early December in a newly created job, deputy director for repository development. . . . .Arthur will be chief of DOE’s Nevada-based operations that involve 100 federal employees and 1,500 contract workers. . . . DOE is recruiting a counterpart to be deputy director at Washington headquarters in charge of “strategy and program development.” . . . .Russ Dyer, longtime project manager, will be a senior project advisor under Arthur. Both Arthur and his DC counterpart will report to Margaret Chu, director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. (DOE and Las Vegas Review Journal 10/11/02)

    Nuclear industry plays politics... In the 2002 election, the nuclear industry doled out more than $1.5 million to federal candidates in competitive races, according to a November 2002 report by Public Citizen. The contributions came from nuclear power plant owners and operators and three leading trade associations: the American Public Power Association; Edison Electric Institute, and the Nuclear Energy Institute. (Source: access the report:

    Transportation procurement is starting... DOE has drafted a list of services it will need for a Yucca Mountain “transportation integration contractor” responsible for coordinating shipments of spent fuel and high level waste to Yucca Mountain. Tasks include: planning, equipment acquisition, analysis and management plans, operational planning and scheduling for mobilization. (Source: Nuclear Waste News 10/3/02)

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