The Yucca Mountain Safety Evaluation Report: One Step of a Long Journey

David McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

The NRC staff has now completed its safety evaluation report (SER) on the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, with the publication of Volume 2 and Volume 5. This is an important milestone – however, completion of the SER neither finishes the review process nor represents a licensing decision.

yucca

To recap: The NRC closed its review of the application in fiscal year 2011. (The full story is here.) The NRC staff published Volume 1 of its five-volume SER in August 2010. Volume 1 covered general information about the application. The NRC staff subsequently published three technical evaluation reports to capture the work it had already done on volumes 2, 3 and 4, though without any regulatory conclusions.

In August 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the NRC to resume the licensing process using leftover money appropriated from the Nuclear Waste Fund. So the agency resumed its work on the formal safety evaluation report. We published Volume 3, covering repository safety after permanent closure, in October 2013. Volume 4, on administrative and programmatic requirements, was published in December. Volume 2, repository safety before permanent closure, and Volume 5, license specifications, complete the SER and the technical part of the licensing review.

That technical review concluded DOE’s application meets the safety and regulatory requirements in NRC’s regulations, except for DOE’s failure to secure certain land and water rights needed for construction and operation of the repository. These issues were identified in Volume 4.

Bottom line: the SER recommends that the Commission should not issue a construction authorization until DOE secures those land and water rights, and a supplement to DOE’s environmental impact statement (EIS) is completed.

The land DOE still needs to acquire is owned by three federal agencies: DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense. Legislation was introduced in Congress in 2007 to appropriate the land for the repository, but it did not pass. The water rights DOE needs are owned by the state of Nevada, which refused to appropriate the water in 1997. Litigation challenging that refusal is stayed.

yuccatunnelWhen the NRC resumed its licensing review in response to the appeals court, the agency asked DOE to supplement the EIS to cover certain groundwater-related issues. DOE declined to do so. The NRC staff is prepared to develop the supplement if the Commission tells it to.

Even if the EIS is completed, two more steps are needed before a licensing decision can be made. The adjudication of nearly 300 contentions filed by Nevada and other parties challenging the repository was also suspended in 2011. Reviving and completing this hearing will require more funding from Congress. Finally, the Commission must review issues outside of the adjudicatory context. Only then would the Commission decide whether to authorize construction.

So yes, completion of the SER is a major step, but there are many more ahead before the NRC can say yea or nay to Yucca Mountain.

 

Additional Scrutiny at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant Set to Continue

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

Update: As a follow-up, the NRC is launching a Special Inspection today (Monday, Feb. 2) at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in response to the shutdown that occurred at the Plymouth, Mass., facility on Jan. 27. The six-member team will review equipment issues experienced during the shutdown, including the partial loss of off-site power. The results of the NRC inspection will be made publicly available within 45 days of the inspection’s completion.

Last fall, a team of NRC inspectors was tasked with evaluating whether issues at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant that triggered increased agency oversight had been satisfactorily addressed. That team has now returned its findings in the form of a newly issued inspection report.

pilgrimAnd the answer – at least at this point in time – is that Entergy, the Plymouth, Mass., plant’s owner, still has some more work to do.

Specifically, although the eight-member team has determined that, in general, the company’s problem identification, root cause evaluation and corrective action plans were adequate, it has identified deficiencies in the implementation of corrective action plans, as well as in understanding of the issues’ causes.

In its report, the team cites several examples where fixes were not completed as intended or were closed prematurely.

As a result, per agency protocols, the NRC is assigning two “parallel” “white” (low to moderate safety significance) inspection findings to Pilgrim. The findings will administratively replace two “white” performance indicators that initially led to the plant receiving additional scrutiny.

The net effect will be the plant will continue to receive heightened attention until the NRC can perform a follow-up team inspection and is satisfied the concerns have been resolved. The NRC will conduct that additional inspection once Entergy notifies the agency of its readiness for it.

To back up for a moment, the Pilgrim plant’s performance indicator for Unplanned Scrams (shutdowns) with Complications crossed the threshold from “green” to “white” following the third quarter of 2013. Then, in the fourth quarter of last year, the performance indicator for Unplanned Scrams per 7,000 Hours of Operation also changed to “white,” something that occurs if a plant has more than three such shutdowns during the designated period.

This placed Pilgrim in the Degraded Cornerstone Column of the Action Matrix used by the NRC to assess plant performance.

Pilgrim has not had any unplanned scrams since October 2013, and the performance indicators discussed above are currently “green.” But the assignment of the white findings will keep the plant in the Degraded Cornerstone Column pending successful completion of the supplemental inspection.

The NRC intends to discuss the inspection results during the Annual Assessment meeting for the plant. That meeting will likely take place in March near the plant, but a date, time and location have not yet been firmed up.