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Energy Department officials yesterday revised their end-of-year deadline for submitting the department's long-awaited license application for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, citing continuing legal challenges, budget questions and the need to further review documents pertaining to the site.
Tuesday, November 23, 2004


DOE's missed Yucca deadline will not derail project, officials say

Mary O'Driscoll, Greenwire senior reporter

Energy Department officials yesterday revised their end-of-year deadline for submitting the department's long-awaited license application for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, citing continuing legal challenges, budget questions and the need to further review documents pertaining to the site.

Margaret Chu, director of DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, made the announcement at a quarterly management meeting with Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials, saying that the timing for the application remains unclear, but that the setback should not result in "significant delays" for the project. Many observers outside the agency expect DOE to file its license application after mid-2005.

The missed deadline announcement was not unexpected given the controversial project's numerous hurdles. Yucca has been subject to several legal challenges, regulatory disputes and lingering budget questions following the loss of nearly $300 million in anticipated federal funds due to appropriations cutbacks for fiscal year 2005.

The state of Nevada has been among the project's most active opponents, with its most notable victory coming last summer when a federal appellate court rejected the U.S. EPA's determination that the repository as designed was capable of protecting the public from radiation for 10,000 years.

Questions about the 5,800-page application, drafted by DOE contractor Bechtel-SAIC, have also been fueled by critics who note that Bechtel stood to gain millions of dollars in bonuses for meeting specific deadlines in the license application process. Now that the final deadline is moved, DOE said it wants to go back and make some improvements to the application.

Steve Kraft, director of spent fuel management for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said that while the industry is "clearly disappointed" by the missed deadline, it will be worth the wait if the delay contributes to an improved license application.

"The industry doesn't see any value in DOE submitting an application that it's not proud of," Kraft said. "A high-quality license application is a fundamental building block of doing the repository safely. It should be done safely, and if it's going to take them extra time to get the licensing in their view correct -- and by all means they ought to get it correct -- I imagine the people of Nevada would feel the same way."

Kraft noted, however, that each delay drives up liability costs for DOE, charges that stem from the government's failure to open the repository by an original target date of 1998. Several nuclear power utilities are suing the government over the delays, saying that while they continue to contribute to the government's nuclear waste trust fund, they have no permanent repository for their radioactive wastes.

Opponents of the project, however, see the delay as yet another example of Yucca Mountain's disastrous record. "If [DOE officials] see this as a bump in the road, then they must be driving a Hummer," said Joe Egan, the Washington-based attorney representing the state in its Yucca Mountain fight. "My view is the program is deeply in trouble on a variety of key fronts."

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the incoming Senate minority leader who for years has used his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee to thwart Yucca Mountain funding efforts, called the delay "just another example of how scientifically flawed and poorly managed this project is."

Kraft, however, noted that even with the delay, lawmakers have expressed confidence in Yucca Mountain's completion by way of the recently approved fiscal year 2005 funding legislation. That bill gives DOE five times the amount of money it had sought for advanced nuclear power programs -- programs Kraft said would not be feasible without some resolution to the mounting nuclear waste storage problem.

"I think what it means is that Congress is saying that even with all external challenges on the Yucca Mountain project, they still have faith it's going forward," Kraft said.

The court's rejection of EPA's 10,000-year radiation standard remains a major hurdle for DOE, however, because it only can be fixed through the establishment of a new EPA standard or by explicit congressional approval of the current one. EPA officials have said they expect to have a regulatory proposal ready early next year, though Egan indicated agency officials have said privately that plans have been slow to take shape. Without an approved standard, any DOE application will be incomplete and therefore subject to legal challenge.

Lastly, DOE is required to make public relevant documents about the project under a "licensing support network" six months before filing its license application with NRC. The Internet-based network is designed to be a clearinghouse for multi-agency documents dealing with the repository.

The NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled in August that DOE had failed to satisfy commission regulations by not making public substantial quantities of documentary material already in the department's possession (Greenwire, Sept. 1).

This all raises many questions as to the timing of the application and the "docketing" of the application, in which NRC makes an official place for it in the licensing process and which starts the three-year clock on the application process.

While DOE officials say they expect the document network to be completed sometime next spring, there is some disagreement as to what that means for DOE's application filing. Egan and Nevada officials insist the law stipulates an application must wait a full six months after the network is established, while Kraft and other nuclear industry officials say the law can be interpreted to mean that DOE can file the application at any time, but NRC cannot officially open a docket on the application until the six-month time period is up.

Regarding the radiation standard, Kraft and others say DOE can still file the license application even without a final standard, noting it is just one of many elements that make up the massive application, and that NRC can put off review of that portion of the application until it is resolved.

If that happens, Egan said Nevada will go straight to court. "What you have is the possibility of them submitting a license application, the possibility of NRC docketing it, and the possibility it can be docketed and reviewed without a rule in place," he said of the radiation standard. "Every one of those is subject to challenge."