OLYMPIA — The state of Washington today won an important victory in its fight to prevent the federal government from permanently removing the nation’s only Congressionally approved, high-level nuclear waste repository from future consideration.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) Atomic Safety and Licensing Board today denied the federal Department of Energy’s (DOE) motion to withdraw “with prejudice” its license application for the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste repository, saying the agency lacked authority to withdraw the application under the law.
Attorney General Rob McKenna said he was encouraged that the board recognized the administration’s lack of authority to unilaterally kill the project and praised the expertise of his legal team as key to the ruling.
“As our team argued, roughly two-thirds of the nation’s defense-related, high-level radioactive waste is housed and being cleaned up at Hanford,” McKenna said. “Although some of this waste will be permanently stored at Hanford, Congress has selected Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository for high-level radioactive waste, including certain waste from Hanford. Roughly $10 billion has been spent pursuing development of this high-level waste repository to date—and billions more have been spent in Washington.
“Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act specifically to prevent politics from pre-empting hard science in decisions about nuclear waste clean-up and disposal,” he said. “If the Administration would like to remove Yucca from consideration, they need to follow the law. ”
Senior Counsel Andy Fitz presented Washington’s case before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on June 3 in Las Vegas, arguing that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires DOE and the NRC to undertake a licensing process for Yucca Mountain and that under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, neither the DOE nor the NRC have the legal authority to terminate that licensing process prematurely and in a manner that forever forecloses it from being reopened.
This week’s ruling from the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is the latest in the ongoing battle to protect Washington's interests and ensure that the Yucca Mountain site continues to be evaluated as Congress directed. The state is also pursuing legal action in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The court ordered expedited review in that case with oral argument expected in late September.
The Department of Energy now has 10 days to appeal this decision to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Between 1944 and 1989, the US produced plutonium for use in nuclear weapons at the DOE’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the Tri-Cities. Washington hosts and oversees the cleanup of nearly two-thirds of the nation’s defense-related, high-level radioactive waste at Hanford.
Roughly 53 million gallons of nuclear waste is stored in 177 large underground tanks—of which 149 are 42 years beyond their expected 25-year design life. Of the 149 tanks, more than one-third are known or suspected to be leaking, releasing roughly 1 million gallons of waste to Hanford’s surrounding soils. Hanford lacks the storage capacity to retrieve the waste from these tanks until the waste treatment and disposal process is underway.
In 2002, Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s sole current repository site for deep geologic disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.
At that time, the Secretary of Energy concluded that, “The amount and quality of research the DOE has invested… done by top-flight people…is nothing short of staggering…I am convinced that the product of over 20 years, millions of hours, and four billion dollars of this research provides a sound scientific basis for concluding the site can perform safely.”
Congress then directed DOE to file a license application for the Yucca Mountain site with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and thereby commence a formal evaluation and licensing process overseen by the NRC.
Washington’s $12.3 billion Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) continues to be designed and constructed to meet standards specific to the Yucca Mountain facility. Design and engineering for the WTP is 78 percent complete and construction is 48 percent complete.
Termination of the Yucca Mountain repository could result in the need to tear down and rebuild portions of the WTP to implement design and engineering changes necessary to meet another repository’s waste acceptance criteria, resulting in significant costs and delays in Hanford’s entire tank waste clean-up mission.
Janelle Guthrie, AGO Communications Director, (360) 586-0725