The nation will never have a repository for its high-level nuclear waste if the legal process for picking and licensing a site is disregarded, a senior attorney for Washington told a Congressional panel Friday.
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy heard testimony Friday on the state of the nation’s management of high-level defense waste — the majority of it at the Hanford nuclear reservation — and used commercial nuclear fuel. Officials planned for the waste and fuel to be be sent to the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
The Obama administration has instead proposed starting over to pick a repository site from those volunteered with full support from the local to state level. In March, the administration further proposed a new plan to reverse a 1985 presidential determination to dispose of defense and commercial waste together, and look at the possibility of separate defense waste disposal first.
The plan to separate the waste has met with mixed reaction.
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The state is open to other ways to dispose of defense waste if it can be done more quickly, said Andy Fitz, senior counsel for the Washington State Office of Attorney General.
But as long as the law requires moving forward with establishing Yucca Mountain as the national repository, that should be respected, he said. DOE schemes without certainty or budget are not substitutes for following the current legal process, he said.
Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus arranged the hearing after touring Yucca Mountain last month. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., also took the tour and attended the Friday hearing.
“Since my previous visit in 2011, the landscape has notably advanced to support the development of a permanent repository,” Shimkus said. As much as $15 billion has been spent on work at Yucca Mountain, according to estimates by supporters of proceeding with work on the repository there.
The nation’s nuclear waste management policy is not a partisan issue, he said. The House has repeatedly supported Yucca Mountain, and efforts to abandon Yucca Mountain were defeated by the House a year ago with two-thirds of the House’s Democrats supporting Yucca Mountain, he said.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act names Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository.
Fitz said that although some believe that following the act is unwise, “the method for pursuing that disagreement should be through changing the law, not disregarding it.”
The federal government’s efforts to abandon Yucca Mountain bypass the careful process set out in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act for developing a national repository, he said. Washington has been clear in its legal arguments that the licensing decision on Yucca Mountain should be made by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and be based on the merits of the proposed site.
Fitz quoted the report that accompanied the act, which said, “ It is necessary … to provide close Congressional control … to assure that the political and programmatic errors of our past experience will not be repeated.”
If the process of developing a repository stands any chance of success, it has to span, and withstand, changes in federal and state administrations and the political tides that accompany them, Fitz said.
“If you are going to complete a process measured in decades, you cannot be continually second-guessing the policy or switching course part-way through,” he said. “The thing that keeps you on course is, and must be, the law.”
The NRC resumed licensing work on Yucca Mountain after a successful lawsuit brought by the state of Washington and others, including a coalition of Tri-City business leaders, leading to the release of the final volume of a Safety Evaluation Report in January.
The report determined that Yucca Mountain could meet all safety regulations, including that it could safely serve as a repository for up to 1 million years, Shimkus said.
The NRC is not prepared to authorize construction, however, said Josephine Piccone, director of the NRC Yucca Mountain directorate. The Department of Energy has not met requirements concerning ownership of the land and water rights, she said.
The NRC also must hold an adjudicatory hearing that will require several years to complete, she said. The agency does not have the $330 million needed to complete the construction authorization proceeding, she said.
Under the proposal to pick a new site for one or more repositories, no permanent repository is expected to be available before 2048.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and three other senators proposed legislation in March to allow the energy secretary to dispose of defense and commercial waste separately. The legislation could allow progress on disposing of defense waste, despite gridlock on solutions for commercial nuclear fuel, Cantwell’s staff said.
The federal government has said that because some defense waste is less radioactive and easier to handle, a simpler design might work for a defense repository.
Leadership of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce responded to the administration’s proposal to separate defense and commercial waste with a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in April.
The administration’s proposal to dispose of waste separately “is based on underlying assumptions that appear to disregard the existing work that has been accomplished to date on a permanent repository,” said committee Chairman Fred Upton and ranking member Frank Pallone Jr.
The Energy Community Alliance questioned Upton and Pallone’s stand in a letter to them sent Friday. The alliance is made up of communities near defense waste nuclear sites, including Hanford.
“Many of the interests of the local governments and communities that host defense nuclear facilities in the United States are not being fully understood,” the alliance letter said.
After years of virtually no movement to dispose of high level radioactive defense waste, any possible movement could be beneficial, the letter said.
“(The alliance) supports proceeding with the Yucca Mountain licensing application, but we also support pursuing other options simultaneously in order to begin moving nuclear waste out of our communities in the most expedited manner possible,” the letter said.