Date: Feb. 6, 2003
Contacts: Bill Kearney, Media Relations Officer
Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
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Report Recommends 'Staged' Approach at Yucca Mountain

WASHINGTON -- Nuclear-waste disposal programs, including the one at Yucca Mountain, Nev., should be implemented in stages, so that decisions about how to proceed can be based on the latest available information, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The committee that wrote the report coined the term "adaptive staging" to describe this approach because it allows project managers to make adjustments throughout the disposal process based on operational experience or scientific advances. Safety, environmental, and cost concerns also can be taken into account in a timely manner, and managers can better respond to public input. In the case of Yucca Mountain, adaptive staging would allow the U.S. Department of Energy, which is overseeing the project, to retain the option of reversing a decision or action while moving forward with disposal.

"Adaptive staging focuses on cautious progress based on continuous learning and on maintaining flexibility in the program, rather than on meeting pre-arranged, rigid milestones," said committee chair Charles McCombie, an independent consultant based in Switzerland. "While this approach calls for a measured pace of advancement, it will not necessarily delay the project."

Adaptive staging is characterized by the simultaneous presence of seven attributes: continuous and systematic learning, flexibility, reversibility, "auditability," transparency, integrity, and responsiveness to public concern. The committee called the decision-making that separates each stage of the disposal process a "decision point." At each decision point, project managers collect and evaluate all relevant information acquired so far and use it to develop options for the next stage. At the same time, they re-assess the safety of the geological repository, make their findings public, and engage in a dialogue with stakeholders. Introducing decision points throughout the project reduces the odds of large-scale, costly mistakes.

DOE requested the report after recognizing the potential advantages of employing a staged development approach at Yucca Mountain -- where the department wants to operate a geological repository for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste, pending regulatory approval. Some of DOE's plans are already consistent with the principles of adaptive staging.

However, DOE's overall approach to the Yucca project is still more "linear" than adaptive, the committee said. This linear planning is illustrated by the department's tendency to propose unrealistic schedules and by a lack of public involvement in some decision processes. Furthermore, DOE's major milestones that involve interaction with other stakeholders correspond to licensing-decision requirements, whereas adaptive staging incorporates many more transparent decision points.

The sooner DOE adopts adaptive staging for Yucca, the more effective this approach is likely to be, the committee said. It urged the department to follow through on the idea of a pilot stage, which could -- after obtaining the proper license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- consist of first placing some nonradioactive simulated waste in the geological repository, and then putting a small amount of radioactive waste in one section of the underground facility. At the same time, other tests can be conducted outside the repository but within the same rock formation so that the integrity of the repository itself is not jeopardized while studying features that, if implemented, would improve performance or reduce uncertainties. DOE also should consider reserving a fraction of the waste-disposal area for public demonstration purposes.

To provide the recommended flexibility, adaptive staging may require a larger "buffer" storage capacity at, or near, Yucca Mountain. This additional storage will allow managers to receive waste at the repository even if there will be a delay in its being placed underground, the committee said. Buffer storage also offers a place for waste to be stored if it has to be retrieved from the underground facility.

Adaptive staging will not affect the security of nuclear waste, the committee added. The length of time before Yucca Mountain is ready to receive waste is so long that more immediate measures will be needed if security becomes a heightened concern.

Adaptive staging may lead to higher costs early on, the report says, but it could also accelerate schedules and reduce costs in the long term because the nature of the process may allow problems to be identified and corrected before they become expensive and time-consuming.

The committee made several recommendations for improving scientific knowledge and public outreach. For example, a technical oversight group -- independent of the federal government -- should be established by DOE to review scientific aspects of the Yucca project, and a stakeholder advisory board representing local organizations, state governments, municipalities, and other concerned parties should be set up as well. In addition, the long-term science and technology program initiated last year by DOE to address technical concerns at Yucca Mountain -- beyond what is required to obtain license approval -- should be given high priority and sustained funding, and should include social-science research.

The U.S. regulatory framework has adequate flexibility to accommodate an adaptive staging approach at Yucca Mountain, the committee said. It called on DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to work together -- without either agency compromising its independence -- to ensure that the regulatory process allows for adaptive staging, and that the public has access to information and participates in hearings and the licensing process.

The committee was not asked to comment on the choice of geological repositories as a preferred option for disposal of high-level radioactive waste or on the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a repository site. Its study addresses geological repositories in general, with specific applications to Yucca Mountain when appropriate.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of One Step at a Time: The Staged Development of Geologic Repositories for High-Level Radioactive Waste for free on the Web, as well as 2,500 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available from the National Academies Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Radioactive Waste Management

Committee on Principles and Operational Strategies for Staged Repository Systems

Charles McCombie (chair)
Independent Strategic and Technical Adviser

David E. Daniel* (vice chair)
College of Engineering, and
Professor of Civil Engineering
University of Illinois

Robert M. Bernero
Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (retired)
Gaithersburg, Md.

Radford Byerly Jr.
Independent Consultant, and
Former Chief of Staff
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology
Boulder, Colo.

Barbara L. Dutrow
Associate Professor of Geology and Geophysics
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge

Jerry M. Harris
Professor and Chair
Department of Geophysics
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Thomas H. Isaacs
Office of Policy, Planning, and Special Studies, and
Council on Energy and Environmental Systems
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Livermore, Calif.

Leonard F. Konikow
Research Hydrologist
U.S. Geological Survey
Reston, Va.

Todd R. La Porte
Professor of Political Science
University of California

Jane C.S. Long
Mackay School of Mines
University of Nevada

Werner Lutze
Professor of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering, and
Center for Radioactive Waste Management
University of New Mexico

Eugene A. Rosa
Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy
Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service, and Chair of the Department of Sociology
Washington State University

Atsuyuki Suzuki
Professor of Nuclear Engineering
Department of Quantum Engineering and Systems Science, and
Chair of Security Management Laboratory
Graduate School of Engineering
University of Tokyo

Wendell D. Weart
Sandia National Laboratories (retired)
Albuquerque, N.M.


Barbara Pastina
Study Director

* Member, National Academy of Engineering