March 3, 2010 will hopefully mark the real beginning of the end for the failed nuclear waste dump proposed for Yucca Mountain on Western Shoshone Land in Nevada, more than 30 years ago. The US Department of Energy (DOE) filed a motion with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that would withdraw its application for a license to build and operate a nuclear waste repository with the added stipulation that the NRC rule not only to let DOE withdraw, but to do so with prejudice, meaning that there could be no future application for the site.
This action not only spells a clear intention by the Obama Administration to deliver its promise to kill the site, it actually grants a 1998 petition made by Nuclear Information and Resource Service and signed by more than 200 organizations calling on the Secretary of Energy to disqualify the site since it was known at that point it could not meet a key site suitability criteria on ground water travel time. The DOE motion effectively grants the NIRS petition, 12 years later.
In response to the DOE motion to withdraw its application for a license with prejudice, a number of entities have filed motions to join the licensing proceeding in order to object to the DOE action including: the States of South Carolina and Washington, the County of Aiken in SC, and a business association based in the Hanford, WA area. It is rumored that other entities including the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) are considering similar action. Their arguments against the NRC granting DOE’s motion are based on a very thin reading of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act which requires that the Secretary of Energy make a license application for Yucca Mountain, but failed to anticipate a situation where that license might be withdrawn.
In addition, a growing number of lawsuits have been filed which argue a very tenuous thread which assumes that since a dump application was submitted a dump license will be granted. Taking that assumption as the basis of both “standing” and also the “harm” that DOE’s action would cause, various South Carolina entities are arguing that not building Yucca will harm the people of South Carolina, even to the point of diminishing property values because of radioactive waste generated in SC staying there; no mention is made of the massive, long-term storage of radioactive wastes at Savannah River Site (SRS). Ironically, many of these same entities are boosters for the idea of a reprocessing center at SRS.
Since the NRC has the power to determine this outcome, this will be a turning point for that agency: is it simply a “rubber stamp?” or is it capable of policy determinations. Unfortunately, until there is a change in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, no one can officially declare this dump dead, however a ruling in favor of DOE’s motion to withdraw the license with prejudice would go a long way in that direction.
Source and contact: Mary Olson is Southeast Regional Coordinator for Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS)