Does Yucca Mountain hold a Key to a National nuclear renaissance?
By Dick Flanagan, Publisher
The past two years have been full of changes and milestones for Ted Feigenbaum. Feigenbaum is president and general manager of Bechtel SAIC Company, LLC (BSC) the management and operating contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Civilian and Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM). Since being featured in a 2006 issue of World-Generation, he has been busy overseeing BSC’s design of the nation’s first nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada.
In 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) established a process for the siting, construction and operation of a repository for the permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. In the 20 plus years since then, the DOE has studied various sites to find one suitable for development into a nuclear repository for the waste generated by the nation’s defense programs and nuclear power plants. In 2002, the Secretary of Energy recommended the Yucca Mountain site and President Bush and Congress agreed designating it for development of the nation’s first permanent repository.
Where we are now
This past June the DOE submitted a License Application (LA) to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requesting authorization to construct the repository; a landmark in the history of the United State’s energy program.
Feigenbaum drove the design of surface and subsurface facilities of the repository and worked with the national laboratories to incorporate data from scientific experiments into the application. Says Feigenbaum, “The Project team’s hard work and resiliency resulted in a high quality application which DOE was able to submit to the NRC ahead of schedule in June 2008. This is a major step in providing a solution to the problem of disposing of nuclear waste and is the culmination of more than two decades of intense scientific scrutiny.”
The License Application is more than 8,600 pages in length and describes in detail the repository’s engineering design concept and natural features of the site plus a safety analysis report or SAR. Using state of the art probabilistic analyses, the SAR demonstrates how the repository can be constructed, operated, and closed in a manner that protects public and worker health and safety and preserves the quality of the environment.
Getting to this point, however, wasn’t without its challenges one of which was, and still is, funding. By law, users of nuclear electricity pay for the cost of disposal of spent nuclear fuel through their monthly bills. These user fees are credited to a designated Nuclear Waste Fund Account. Since the 1980s, mandatory payments to the fund, plus investment returns, have yielded a total of over $20 billion. However, the DOE doesn’t have direct access to the fund. Annual congressional appropriations from the fund to the department have been much less than annual fund receipts and the DOE’s budget requests; $200 million less in appropriations than requested in FY 2007 and 2008 resulting in delays of crucial work. “We often have to operate with uncertain annual budgets which impacts long-term planning,” he says.
Other challenges included a change in how the nuclear waste would be handled. Previous plans called for the material to be removed from shipping containers and placed into permanent canisters for emplacement. “Project plans then moved to a transportation, aging and disposal, or TAD, approach which eliminated the need for additional construction of spent fuel handling facilities and repetitive handling prior to disposal,” says Feigenbaum. “Most fuel will arrive at the repository in a standardized canister which is then placed into a waste package for emplacement. This change simplified design, licensing and construction, while increasing worker and public safety.”
Finally, one of the biggest challenges has come from the state of Nevada. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and the Nevada delegation, staunchly opposes the project and has worked diligently to kill the program despite the huge economic benefits for rural Nevada. The project has a multi-faceted public information and education initiative underway to counter the state’s political opposition to the project. “We have to get the facts to the public about the safety of the designs and the substantial economic benefits to the region” Feigenbaum says.
However, support for the Project could well be at a turning point. Around the world, nuclear power is back on the table as an alternative to power generated from fossil fuels which emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Nuclear power could be the solution to the high cost of foreign oil and changes in the world’s climate. There is also a clear nexus between increased reliance on clean nuclear energy and the Yucca Mountain Project which provides a permanent and safe solution for spent nuclear fuel.
Nuclear power already provides about 20 percent of our nation’s electricity and is an essential part of our domestic energy supply. In the U.S. almost a dozen applications are pending for new reactors to supplement or replace the current fleet of 104 operating reactors. Many countries around the globe are also establishing or renewing nuclear power programs and they are evaluating spent fuel disposal options. There is significant international interest in the science and safety of the Yucca Mountain project. This project is an important step in re-establishing American leadership in the world-wide nuclear arena.
What’s next in the process?
The NRC is the licensing and enforcement agency that will make the final decision on whether the DOE is allowed to proceed with construction and, subsequently, licensed to operate the repository. NRC approval consists of two steps; construction authorization for the repository and licensing.
The agency will begin a docketing or acceptance review of the application to determine if it contains enough information for a formal technical review. If it does, the NRC begins a formal technical review and legal hearings during which it will consider the repository scientific and design information, including project opponents’ opposing views.
If the application is docketed, the NRC’s technical staff initiates a detailed review. This review will most likely generate requests for additional information. An integrated OCRWM team of DOE, Bechtel SAIC Company, LLC, Sandia National Laboratory (as the lead for a multiple national laboratory team) and Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program personnel will develop responses that clarify existing information and update the LA as necessary to reflect the outcomes.
The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) will conduct the licensing hearings at which interested parties may participate and file legally- or technically-relevant contentions. The ASLB will then forward an initial decision to the NRC board regarding construction. The NRC grants a construction authorization only if it concludes from its investigations that the repository meets reasonable expectations that the safety and health of workers and the public is protected. The licensing process leading to construction authorization will likely take 36-48 months to complete.
The next phase
The shift in focus from licensing application to licensing support shifts the focus from a project definition phase into a project execution phase. With that come new requirements and processes.
One focus will be an increased emphasis on promoting regulatory confidence by strengthening the project’s nuclear safety culture behaviors which make nuclear safety the overriding priority and emphasize that every employee is personally responsible for nuclear safety.
“In addition to this culture change, the Yucca Mountain team will continue to drive the licensing process and will be called upon to respond to questions about the repository’s safety and regulatory compliance while simultaneously planning for the construction and eventual operation of a large, complex facility,” says Feigenbaum.
He remains confident that Yucca Mountain will move ahead due to the strong team working on the project and the team’s focus as it moves forward to develop the nation’s first repository for nuclear material.
“The Yucca Mountain Project is vital to the U.S. energy and security interests, facilitates clean-up and decommissioning of several federal facilities, and paves the way for a revitalized nuclear power industry. After many years, the highly experienced, capable, and focused team have established a solid foundation to ensure continued progress towards achieving this national priority”, Feigenbaum said.