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Thursday, June 7, 2012

A fresh life for spent fuel storage?

News out of Washington today is most promising for those of us who have been seriously concerned about the issue of long term storage of high-level waste (spent nuclear fuel) in the United States, as the DOE has been found to have no basis for continuing to charge utilities for payments into the Nuclear Waste Fund (since the NRC Chairman killed the Yucca Mountain fuel repository program review process); in a different move, a fair injection of further cash has been made to fund the full completion of the Yucca Mountain study by the NRC so that there is no chance of the resurfacing of the Chairman's claim that funding was an issue.

We have been talking about this issue around here for quite some time. Click here to see just one of a whole string of articles that I posted during the last year. Note my analysis of Jaczko's actions vis a vis Yucca Mountain:

"...Jaczko's appointment was made with the understanding that his sole purpose was to kill the Yucca Mountain HLW (High Level Waste) storage facility plan, which was to be located Nevada - Reid's state - and which Reid opposed. Jaczko is accused in many quarters of having shut down the review of Yucca Mountain when it in fact was the NRC's obligation to complete the review even if the findings were that the facility would be impractical or even unsafe. (The study was shut down far before any final report was launched.)

It should be kept in mind when reading the above fact that the Federal Government is and has been for many years legally obligated to provide such a long term storage facility, in order to get HLW off the sites of owner-operators (i.e. the nuclear power plant sites themselves) and has totally failed in this obligation. Jaczko's killing of the project study is thus especially troubling in light of the fact that no alternative was prepared, or even suggested."

In the above, "Reid" is Harry Reid, for whom Jaczko previously worked (prior to going to the NRC.)

In Jaczko's eyes, and in Reid's eyes, this probably should have been the end of this. But there have been some serious reversals in the last week. Let's look at two of the Nuclear Energy Institute's press releases on the matters at hand, from which we can obtain full and clear detail.


Nuclear Energy Institute
For Release:June 1, 2012

Court of Appeals Rebukes DOE on Nuclear Waste Fund Fee

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 1, 2012—The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Department of Energy (DOE) failed to justify continued payments by consumers of electricity from nuclear power plants into the Nuclear Waste Fund. Consumers since 1982 have paid more than $30 billion into the fund. The court ordered DOE to conduct a complete reassessment of this fee within six months. While the court did not order DOE to suspend the fee payments, the court rejected DOE’s bases for continuing to collect the fees. The Nuclear Energy Institute’s Ellen Ginsberg, vice president, general counsel and secretary, made the following remarks in reaction to today’s decision:

“The court is unequivocal in finding DOE’s interpretation of its legal obligation ‘unacceptable’ and rejecting DOE’s use of Yucca Mountain costs as a ‘proxy’ when the agency terminated the program. The industry’s priority continues to be realization of a fully functioning used fuel management program at DOE.

“Significantly, the court said that the plain language of the statute ‘utterly destroy[s] the Secretary’s claim that he can remain entirely passive and only act to meet DOE’s legal commitment if some [god from above] were to bring him information.’ The court highlighted DOE’s failure to provide an accurate estimate of the ultimate cost of the program, saying the government’s calculation ‘appears to be off by $30 billion.’ The agency must provide clear justification to continue to collect the Nuclear Waste Fund fee at the present level.

“Based on its finding that DOE has a ‘disposition to delay,’ the court appropriately ordered the Energy Secretary to reassess the fee within six months. The industry is pleased that the court retained jurisdiction over this matter, and further, ruled that it has authority to direct the Secretary of Energy to suspend collection of the fee.”


The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available at www.nei.org.


To summarize the above, it's important to understand that the Court of Appeals knows that the Yucca Mountain project has been halted by Chairman Jaczko, and thus the DOE cannot continue to charge US utility companies that own and operate nuclear power plants for a spent fuel repository program that DOES NOT EXIST.

Of course, the major problem with the above statement I've just made is that the program actually DOES exist - it's legislated, and has been for decades. That's right! As I've mentioned so many times before, the government is obligated to locate a site for, and to build and operate, a national nuclear waste storage facility. This was to be at Yucca Mountain; when Jaczko killed the study, it was thought that he killed the program. Of course, he can't do that because he has no legal authority to do so; his business, if you will, is regulatory oversight of the nuclear energy industry. He's not the legislative branch of the government - although his statements during one or more press conferences DO indicate that he feels that as NRC Chairman he does have appellate authority over submissions and studies made to the NRC.

The NRC is obligated to fully complete the Yucca Mountain study. And now, there will apparently be plenty of cash on hand to ensure that this is possible. Let's look at the second Nuclear Energy Institute press release we'll see today.


Nuclear Energy Institute
For Release:June 20, 2012

NEI Commends Rep. Shimkus, House for Increasing Yucca Review Funding

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Nuclear Energy Institute’s Alex Flint, senior vice president for governmental affairs, made the following remarks in reaction to the House of Representatives’ passage today of an amendment to the fiscal 2013 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act. The amendment will increase funding by $10 million for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review of the license application for a repository for used nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

“The nuclear energy industry applauds action taken today by the House of Representatives to increase funding for the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review of the Department of Energy’s license application to build a disposal facility for used nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain. Congressman Shimkus’ leadership in this area has been central to Congress’ effort to spur the development of a disposal facility that will safely and securely manage nuclear fuel from commercial and defense applications.

“The nuclear industry remains concerned about the termination of Yucca Mountain, the only program fulfilling the Department of Energy’s legal obligation under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to dispose of used nuclear fuel from commercial reactors and defense applications. The Yucca Mountain project should proceed and be funded so the technical review of the license application is completed. The industry, in written testimony to the House Energy and Water Appropriations Committee earlier this year, urged the committee to request a specific plan and resources required for continuing the Yucca Mountain licensing process. State and local governments and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners also support NRC review of the license application.”


For detailed news on this action I highly suggest reading this link, which is at The Hill.

The final analysis of the above events and actions can be summed up as follows:

-The NRC has an obligation to complete the Yucca Mountain HLW facility study.

-The NRC Chairman does not have authority to suspend the Yucca Mountain study.

-The DOE cannot continue to charge utilities for a spent fuel disposal program that (at least temporarily) does not exist.

-If the DOE wishes to continue to collect money for the Nuclear Waste Fund it must follow the letter of the law and get the national repository for HLW studied, built and operational somewhere, even if it is not at Yucca Mountain.

This amounts essentially to a whirlwind turnaround from where we were when the announcement was made that the Yucca Mountain study was terminated by Chairman Jaczko. If events continue along these lines, the nuclear renaissance can look toward a stable future for spent fuel and not worry about whether or not the DOE and the Federal Government will finally meet their legal obligations.

12:35 PM Eastern 6/7/2012

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