- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is closing out its work on Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a nuclear waste repository, even as the Obama administration’s decision to scrap the controversial project faces challenges on two fronts, the agency’s chairman said Wednesday.

Last year, the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled that the Energy Department didn’t have the authority to withdraw its application to build the site. The board said it was up to the NRC to issue a “merit-based” decision.

But NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told reporters there is no time frame to make a decision, and he declined to discuss the commission’s internal deliberations on the matter.

“If we have an order, we will produce it,” he said at a Platts Energy Podium roundtable.

The Energy Department’s decision to abandon Yucca is also facing a court challenge from South Carolina, Washington state, Aiken County, S.C., and three Washington state business owners, which claim the Obama administration overstepped its authority in cutting funding for the project.

On Capitol Hill, new House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, Washington state Republican, told the Wall Street Journal last month that the department “has zero authority to withdraw the [Yucca Mountain] license application.”

Mr. Jaczko was previously the science adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, the powerful Democrat who has long vowed to kill the Yucca waste dump in his state. While on Mr. Reid’s staff, Mr. Jaczko advised the senator on how to frame arguments against using the site to store nuclear waste.

Mr. Jaczko said the commission “continues to believe that, when necessary, we will have some type of long-term disposal option for spent fuel. But it’s not likely to be necessary for at least 100 years or more.”

Currently, nuclear waste can either be submerged in spent-fuel pools or in steel and concrete casks for longer onsite storage. Critics say the storage in multiple, smaller sites presents a greater environmental and security threat than have a central national facility such as Yucca Mountain.

Mr. Jaczko said the commission has asked its staff to look at storage challenges 200 or 300 years into the future.

“We’ve repeatedly anticipated that a repository would be available,” he said. “Clearly, that’s not on the horizon now. So we want to look at it more from the perspective of how long can this material be stored safely and securely, and go on as far as we can.”

On another topic, Mr. Jaczko said that the commission will reach a “significant milestone” in the next few weeks when it puts out for public comment Westinghouse’s AP1000 nuclear reactor. The commission could approve the design by late summer or early fall.

Several companies want to build reactors using that design, including Southern Co., which is seeking permission to build two AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle in eastern Georgia, and Scana Corp., which wants to build two of the reactors in South Carolina. The Obama administration has offered roughly $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to finance the Southern Co. project.

After the design is approved, the companies would then need a license to install and operate the reactors at their respective sites. Those licenses could be approved by the end of the year, Mr. Jaczko said, but stressed that it was hard to predict exactly when that would occur.

The commission hasn’t approved construction of a nuclear power plant since 1978; the last operating license was granted in 1996.