United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

Licensing Process

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Recent Activities Timeline

The NRC received an application from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on June 3, 2008, for a license to construct and operate the nation's first geologic repository for high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

On March 3, 2010, the DOE filed a motion with the Board seeking permission to withdraw its license application. The Board denied that request on June 29, 2010, and the parties filed petitions asking the Commission to uphold or reverse this decision.

On October 1, 2010, the NRC began orderly closure of its Yucca Mountain activities. As part of the orderly closure, the NRC staff prepared reports summarizing NRC staff's technical review of DOE's application.

Aerial photo of Yucca Mountain
Yucca Mountain

On September 9, 2011, the Commission issued an order stating that it found itself evenly divided on whether to take the affirmative action of overturning or upholding the Board's June 29, 2010, decision. Exercising its inherent supervisory authority, the Commission directed the Board to complete all necessary and appropriate case management activities by the end of September. On September 30, 2011, the Board suspended the proceeding.

Yucca Mountain activities remained suspended until August 2013, when the staff resumed its license application review following a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

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Background

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 gave the DOE the responsibility to site, construct, and operate a geologic repository for high-level waste. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was directed to develop radiation protection standards for a repository, and the NRC was given responsibility for regulating geologic disposal of the waste. In 1987, amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act directed DOE to focus solely on Yucca Mountain, approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the site for a repository. DOE made its determination in 2002 that Yucca Mountain would be a suitable location; President George W. Bush and Congress accepted that determination and directed DOE to submit its license application.

High-level nuclear waste consists primarily of spent fuel from the nation's commercial nuclear power plants, spent fuel from U.S. Navy reactors, and certain waste generated by DOE during development of nuclear weapons. DOE's proposed repository would hold about 70,000 metric tons of high-level waste, including about 63,000 metric tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel. More than 78,000 metric tons of commercial spent fuel are in temporary storage at nuclear power plants and decommissioned facilities across the country as of the end of 2016.

See also Additional background information.

The Licensing Process

Docketing Review and Environmental Determination

The NRC staff's review began with an initial look at the DOE application to see if it was complete enough to docket and begin a thorough technical review. At the same time, the staff began reviewing DOE's environmental analysis. On September 8, 2008, the agency docketed the application and adopted DOE's environmental impact statements, noting more analysis was needed on groundwater impacts. In February 2015, the Commission directed NRC staff to develop the supplement on the groundwater impacts.

Licensing Review

Entrance Tunnel at Yucca Mountain
Entrance Tunnel at
Yucca Mountain

Once the application was docketed, the NRC's technical staff began a detailed and comprehensive review. This review involved NRC staff and contractor employees with expertise in many technical and scientific disciplines. They were experts in geochemistry, hydrology, climatology, structural geology, volcanology, seismology and health physics, as well as chemical, civil, mechanical, nuclear, mining, materials and geological engineering. The Center for Nuclear Waste Regulatory Analyses (the Center) in San Antonio, Texas, the NRC's federally-funded research and development center, provided technical assistance.


As part of its review, the NRC staff asked for more information from DOE regarding the application. These requests and DOE's responses are publicly available, unless they contain sensitive security, privacy or proprietary information.

As noted above, the NRC staff's Yucca Mountain review activities were closed in September 2011 and resumed in 2013. In January 2015, the NRC staff completed its safety evaluation report (SER) containing its findings on the proposed repository. The SER explains the staff's determination as to whether the facility meets NRC regulations. The NRC staff recommended adoption of DOE's EISs in September 2008, but noted the need to supplement the study of groundwater effects in the Yucca Mountain aquifer beyond DOE's analyzed location at the site boundary.  In May 2016, the NRC staff completed the supplement to DOE's Environmental Impact Statement.

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The Adjudicatory Process

NRC adjudicatory hearings are conducted by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, which is composed of administrative judges who are lawyers, engineers and scientists.

After docketing the application in 2008, the NRC published a notice of hearing and opportunity to participate in the hearing. The Panel appointed multiple Boards of three judges to hear a variety of legal and technical contentions regarding the Yucca Mountain construction authorization application. The Boards determined if the contentions were admissible to the proceeding. Nearly 300 contentions were admitted before the proceeding was suspended on September 30, 2011. If the adjudication were to resume, one or more Boards would hear evidence and issue decisions on admitted issues contesting DOE's application or the NRC staff's decision to adopt the DOE environmental impact statement. A Board could also hold "limited appearance" sessions to allow members of the public to make brief oral statements about the proposed repository, and may invite the public to submit written statements.

The Boards would likely issue several decisions on contentions before the NRC makes a decision on whether to authorize construction. Parties may ask the Commission to review these decisions. The Commission's final decision may be appealed to a U.S. Court of Appeals.

If the NRC were to authorize construction of the Yucca Mountain repository, before beginning to operate the facility, DOE would have to update the application to request NRC approval to receive and possess high-level waste at Yucca Mountain. This application would be subject to the same technical review and hearing processes as the construction authorization application.

Licensing Support Network

Under the Commission's rules, a hearing on DOE's application is required in the public interest before the Commission decides whether to authorize construction. In anticipation of the large number of technical documents related to the application that would be produced by DOE and the other parties, the NRC began preparing for the adjudicatory process long before DOE submitted its license application. The NRC created a Web-based Licensing Support Network (LSN), which was intended to be primarily a discovery tool. At the time the application was submitted, the LSN included over 3.6 million documents the parties had designated as relevant to the proceeding. Some of these were expected to be entered into evidence during the Yucca Mountain evidentiary hearings. The NRC deactivated the network in 2011. The parties submitted their document collections to the Secretary of the NRC and these documents were held in storage. When work resumed in 2013, they were loaded into NRC's Agencywide Documents Access and Management System to allow access by NRC reviewers working on the SER. In February 2015, the Commission directed that the LSN documents be made available to the public through ADAMS, assuming sufficient Nuclear Waste Fund monies remained after the staff's completion of its SER to first allow the staff to prepare and issue an environmental impact statement supplement regarding groundwater discharge impacts. In August 2016, the LSN Library became operational through ADAMS, once again providing public access to the complete document collections of the parties, including those of the staff, that were in the LSN at the time the network was shut down.

Regulations

The NRC's regulations can be found in Title 10, Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR). See also, the primary regulations relevant to the Yucca Mountain review and hearings

Oversight

Currently, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not have active safety oversight responsibilities at the potential Yucca Mountain repository site. When the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, discontinued site activities and closed its Yucca Mountain Project Office, the NRC closed its Las Vegas On-Site Representatives Office.

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Page Last Reviewed/Updated Monday, February 12, 2018