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US government watchdog agency releases report on restarting Yucca Mountain

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has issued a report assessing how the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process for an unfinished permanent nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain could be restarted and proceed to completion.

Released by the nonpartisan federal government watchdog agency on May 25, the report identified four key steps that likely would need to be taken before the shelved nuclear waste repository project in Nevada could be constructed.

The GAO report's release follows the May 23 unveiling of President Donald Trump's budget proposal for fiscal-year 2018, which requested that $30 million in funding go toward storing nuclear waste in the deep geologic repository that was defunded and had its licensing review halted in 2010 under the Obama administration. A "skinny budget" released in March by the Trump administration proposed $120 million in funds for resuming the license process for Yucca Mountain and starting a parallel interim storage program.

According to the GAO, the first step needed to restart Yucca Mountain would be for the parties to "receive direction" to resume the licensing process. The report explained that the NRC could decide to resume that process of its own volition, but is "likely waiting for direction from an external authority — either Congress or the administration." As part of that first step, the NRC would make certain decisions on the timeline and other details so both the agency and other parties can identify funding needs for the review.

The second step would involve the rebuilding of both physical infrastructure and organizational capacity, including the recruitment of legal and scientific experts and personnel to recreate now-defunct Yucca Mountain project offices for the U.S. Department of Energy, NRC and nonfederal parties. In step three, the NRC's commissioners and the agency's Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards would have to issue orders to resume the adjudication process, and the remaining phases of that process, including witness depositions and evidentiary hearings, then would be completed.

Finally, in step four, the NRC would issue a decision on whether to authorize the construction of the repository.

However, the GAO acknowledged that a number of factors could affect the time needed to resume and finish the licensing process, including the DOE's ability to bring back its expert witnesses to defend the license application during the adjudication phase. The GAO contacted former DOE witnesses who estimated it could take at least a year for a new expert to be briefed on the subject before serving as a DOE witness, which is about twice the length of time it would take for the former witnesses to come up to speed.

The GAO report was requested in February 2016 by the leading members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who welcomed its release.

"This report provides DOE and NRC a roadmap to take the necessary steps to complete the Yucca Mountain license," said Energy Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton, R.-Mich., and Environment Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R.-Ill., in a joint statement. "Completing the licensing process is of critical importance because it provides the state of Nevada the opportunity to publicly make their case in front of independent NRC judges."

Upton and Shimkus, who have been pushing to revive Yucca Mountain despite opposition from Nevada's governor and elected officials, said the committee is working towards "comprehensive" nuclear waste legislation in coordination with the DOE and addressing issues outlined in the GAO report.