Nuclear Waste

Spent fuel repository

Print edition : January 10, 2014

The independent spent fuel storage installation at the decommissioned Maine Yankee nuclear power plant. Photo: Maine Yankee

IN a significant development in respect of a geological spent fuel repository in the U.S., which could revive the proposal of storing spent nuclear waste deep under the Yucca Mountains, Nevada, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has directed its staff to complete work on the safety evaluation report (SER) for the proposed site. It has also requested the Department of Energy (DoE) to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement to enable the completion of the environmental review of the application to build the Nevada facility.

The DoE’s application to build and operate the U.S.’ first permanent repository for the disposal of used nuclear fuel and military high-level waste was lodged in 2008, but the NRC suspended work on reviewing the application following a 2009 decision by the government to abandon the project. The NRC resumed the review following an August 2013 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals that it had acted illegally in abandoning the project, for which it had in hand some $11 million of appropriated funds. The NRC announcement came close on the heels of an award by a court on November 14 of over $235 million in combined damages to three utilities known as the Yankee Companies for the U.S. government’s failure to meet its used-fuel obligations. All three of the utilities’ nuclear power plants are decommissioned, but the failure of the federal government to remove used fuel and other high-level waste forced the utilities to continue to store the materials on site. The court award was slightly less than the $247 million the utilities sought.

Under 1982 legislation, the DoE was legally obliged to begin taking used nuclear fuel from utilities for disposal in a permanent repository from 1998. With no permanent repository available, the government was unable to meet its obligations despite collecting a levy from the utilities to pay for used-fuel management. The utilities sought to recoup their continuing used-fuel management costs through the courts. The litigation, covering 2002 to 2008, is the second brought by the Yankee trio. A third round of litigation filed in August for damages in 2009-12 is ongoing.

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