Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 31 No. 06
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Weapons Complex Monitor
Article 12 of 13
February 07, 2020

Nuclear Waste Tech Review Board Awaiting New Members

By Chris Schneidmiller

There has been no apparent movement by the Trump administration over the last year to fill vacant and expired terms on the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB).

The only change to the board in that time was the departure last May of another member, Linda Nozick, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Cornell University in New York state.

That leaves two vacant positions and all but one of the remaining nine board members serving past the end of their four-year terms. The members can stay on until replaced, NWTRB senior professional staff member Bret Leslie noted last week during a presentation at a meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management (INMM) in Alexandria, Va.

The NWTRB is an independent agency with up to 11 part-time board members – scientists and engineers – and a roughly equal number of professional staff. On a steady annual budget of $3.6 million, it provides technical and scientific peer review regarding management and disposal operations at the Department of Energy for high-level radioactive waste and used nuclear fuel.

The board also recently requested a closer working relationship with the DOE Office of Environmental Management, which oversees cleanup of 16 contaminated nuclear-weapon sites around the nation.

The National Academy of Sciences recommends candidates for the board to the White House, which makes the final decisions. The non-political posts do not require Senate approval.

Candidates were submitted to the White House in early 2017, shortly after President Donald Trump took office, National Academy of Sciences spokeswoman Megan Lowry confirmed on Wednesday. She said she could not provide their names.

At deadline Thursday for Weapons Complex Morning Briefing, the White House had not provided any information regarding potential selections.

“At this point, I do not see the vacancies or the uncertain timescale for reappointments or new appointments being a problem for the Board carrying out its mission. The current Board members can continue to serve until replaced,” NWTRB Executive Director Nigel Mote said by email Thursday.

The sole board member not serving on an expired term is Tissa Illangasekare, a civil and environmental engineer from the Colorado School of Mines. He was appointed on Jan. 18, 2017, by then-President Barack Obama.

The board conducts several meetings each year on different topics. Its spring 2020 session, scheduled for April 29 in Chicago, will address Energy Department research and development on direct disposal of used nuclear fuel in dual-purpose canisters.

In January, the NWTRB issued a report on the value of underground laboratories for research and development of geologic disposal of nuclear waste.

Apart from Illangasekare, the board members were appointed or reappointed by Obama in 2012, 2014, and 2015. At that point the White House had defunded licensing of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada and was reorganizing federal plans for management of the nation’s stockpile of high-level waste and used fuel.

“So [the board] was primarily was appointed thinking that there would be a new repository, so it’s more hydro and geo heavy than nuclear engineering,” Leslie said at the INMM meeting. “One can imagine that if Yucca Mountain were to come back the composition would change.”

The Obama administration, guided by 2012 recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel of experts, established a “consent-based” program to find new, separate sites for disposal of defense and commercial waste. The Trump administration canceled that project, instead seeking congressional appropriations to resume licensing for Yucca Mountain at DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Congress rejected those requests in three successive budget cycles, including for the current fiscal 2020. The Office of Management and Budget confirmed Thursday the White House would not seek funding for Yucca Mountain licensing next week when it issues its budget plan for fiscal 2021. That budget year begins Oct. 1.

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