Yucca Mountain Follies: Let’s Rewrite The Ending, Please

Another act in the long running farcical melodrama called Yucca Mountain is unfolding this month. We have such a cast of characters that Broadway, or perhaps Monty Python’s Flying Circus, would be envious.

The dastardly villain has been played well by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has managed to include henchmen that are then disposed of when their usefulness has ended.

His chief minion was Dr. Greg Jaczko, whom he manipulated onto the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s five-person commission, then again into the chairmanship.

Dr. Jaczko proved himself more dastardly than even Harry could manage, what with his ill- timed outbursts at staff and overt manipulation of the other commissioners.

After banishing the good doctor into oblivion at the Department of Energy, Harry brought in a new minion, one with more charm, Dr. Allison Macfarlane.

Our hero in this story at the moment is the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, which finally issued a Writ of Mandamus against the NRC.

The judges waited for a year, in the hope that Congress would do something to make its intentions clear, but between the political stalemates in almost every aspect of government and Harry’s Machiavellian maneuvers in the Senate, no clear intention was forthcoming.

This Writ is historically significant as it represents the first time in U.S. history that the judicial branch has compelled the executive branch of government to complete an action.

The NRC seems to have chosen the role of well-meaning but ineffectual country bumpkin. The other commissioners are unable or unwilling to stand up to the machinations of Sen. Reid and his minions and, with their silence, have allowed an extreme miscarriage of justice—not to mention a blatant flouting of the laws passed by Congress and ratified by a sitting president.

Of course, the victim here is Yucca Mountain.

Sadly, the project is still on life support and the prognosis is not good. The hapless NRC has insufficient funds to bring it back to life, but only to complete the documentation of what kind of repository it could have been.

Dr. Macfarlane, Reid’s latest minion at NRC, has decided to ask the parties to the lawsuit to tell her what to do.

It would seem that her charm and her proclaimed desire for scientific truth does not permit her to find more devious and cut- throat methods to keep Yucca Mountain in a coma and waiting for death.

It appears that she is hoping that the wily Sen. Reid will get other henchmen to give her the air cover she needs to put Yucca Mountain back on ice.

To be a true melodrama, though, audience participation is required. We audience members must boo and hiss the villain, cheer the hero, and sigh for the victim.

We have a chance at participation, though it requires more effort than just loud applause. The NRC asked for the public to comment and suggest what the agency should do next.

They have about $11 million to spend, not enough to complete everything in their purview on Yucca and rescue it from certain death, but enough to tell us what it could have been. Flaws and

positive aspects of the facility. Lessons to be learned for the next time we perform this work.

Help the NRC step up to the hero’s role and stop being the stumbling, bumbling fool. Send an e-mail to the Secretary of the NRC: secy@nrc.gov.

Tell him that the NRC should issue the essentially complete volume 3 of the Safety Evaluation Report, then complete issue volumes 4 and 5.

Then demand that after that, the agency should lay before Congress and the nation what it will take to complete the work mandated in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

Let the next act begin.

By providing that statement, perhaps we can help the other commissioners decide that the courts should not be the only hero in this story and demand a different ending to this multi-act play.

Such an action would allow the NRC to resolve the Waste Confidence issue that has brought all licensing actions to a halt and allow the U.S. to move forward with nuclear energy.

Whether or not we ever bury a single fuel bundle underground at Yucca Mountain is not, in fact, the point.

But having the option available when we finally need to store fuel is—and all we are asking for.

After all, nuclear is the only energy capable of delivering the vast quantities of electricity to drive our country without polluting our air and our water. That’s pretty heroic.

This article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week #5383, 09.26.2013. where Margaret is a regular columnist. To become a subscriber, go to FuelCycleWeek.com or contact the publication at info@fuelcycleweek.com.

RIC NRC – Part 1

I was at the NRC’s Regulatory Information Conference in Washington, DC this week. Every March, a couple thousand nuclear industry professionals, journalists, and members of the public come to the conference center across the street from the NRC’s headquarters in Rockville to hear the NRC discuss issues that concern them.

Many, if not most, of the people come for the first two days to hear the commissioners speak. That is frequently the most interesting part of the week as they do not confer with one another, nor do the staff recommend specific topics. The Chairman always speaks first and many times, the other commissioners will respond, directly or indirectly to her comments. This wide-open format can provide significant insight into each commissioner’s agenda as well as where there is disagreement between them.

In years past, when Dr. Jaczko was still the chair, there were some direct and pointed comments from other commissioners. Funny, at times, but showed the clear schism between the commission and the chair. Dr. MacFarlane is not as controversial, nor has she been as aggressive, so comments from other commissioners have been more muted.

First up, as always, is the chair. Allison MacFarlane opened noting that the conference was opening on the third year anniversary of the Great Tohoku earthquake of Japan in 2011. I find Dr. MacFarlane’s speeches to be vague and with limited useful content. This year, she chose to use her knowledge of earth sciences to tell the nuclear industry that we should recognize that knowledge and understanding about science changes. What? Does she think we haven’t looked at and incorporated new science and technology in the last 40 years? Then she lectured us about the volcanic risks in the US. I am still trying to work out how any of that was relevant to our industry. Was she trying to say that we should account for the possibility of 200 million year events in the lifetime of nuclear facilities? She talked about all the NRC is doing internationally, but failed to provide any specifics. Frankly, as she said similar things at the Platts conference in early February, I stopped listening.

The one thing of note was a brief mention of the Yucca Mountain review process. Dr. MacFarlane has been careful to remain within the executive branch directives of not completing the Yucca Mountain review. Although directed by the courts to spend the remaining money, she made it clear that the NRC had insufficient funds to complete the process. The fact that she failed to asked congress for the needed funds to complete the work was not mentioned, nor did anyone bother to ask the question. We assume that she would claim that DOE has to ask for the funds for NRC to complete the review. The fact that the courts have also whipped DOE about this whole mess is apparently not her problem.

Next up was the new EDO of the NRC, Mark Satorius. He has been in the position less than a year as Bill Borchardt retired in 2013 after the RIC. Because he is relatively new, his speech was more about the changes he was or wasn’t making and the learning curve of issues and events he had to gain speed on. He did state that the NRC is on track to complete its revision to the Waste Confidence Decision by fall of this year.

Aside: Dr. Dale Klein, former chair of the NRC, gave a speech to the local ANS section on Wednesday night. He took the entire government to task for its failures in this area. His lucid and clear headed discussion of the issues was refreshing. I wish he was still in the chairman’s position. End aside

After the break, Christine Svinicki spoke. She is always interesting at the RIC. Major public speeches with little direction are not her favorite activity and her talks at the RIC are sometimes rambling. This time she was both amusing and poignant with her talk. Her description of procrastination activities to avoid writing the speech hit a nerve with me. Although I‘ve never stooped to doing my taxes to avoid doing something else. She then spoke eloquently about suffering and the harm done to the Japanese people by the earthquake and Tsunami. Not just about Fukushima, but the entire coastline. I have been frustrated by the continued drumbeat of Fukushima at the expense of the 18,000 people who lost their lives, the families with no one left to mourn them, or even bury them at some villages. The 170,000 people that remain homeless due to the tsunami who receive little or no help from anyone in the world.

The final speaker on Tuesday was Dr. Apostolakis. I appreciate his deep knowledge of and ability to explain how Probabilistic Risk Assessment to those of us who have a smattering of statistics and probability but only enough to get it wrong in the more complex analyses. He took apart a common statement from anti-nuclear folks about the probability of an accident being far greater than PRA calculates. Most of them have used a simple formula: the likelihood of an accident has to be determined by dividing the number of accidents into the number of reactor years. Dr. Apostolakis pointed out that this calculation assumes that all reactors are basically the same, operated under similar conditions, with similar regulation. Since this is clearly not true, the basic formula is false. His analogy was the calculation of riskiest professions. Under the same assumptions, being president of the United States was far riskier than being a police officer. Clearly circumstances and new measures put in place after each assassination or attempt have improved the safety of the president. Thus the simple calculation cannot be used to compare these issues.

Wednesday was “the two Bills”, William Magwood and William Ostendorff. They frequently present interesting and related views about the commission. That will be the subject of a blog early next week.