Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal
Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal
Updated October 7, 2008
Specialist in Energy Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal
Management of civilian radioactive waste has posed difficult issues for
Congress since the beginning of the nuclear power industry in the 1950s. Federal
policy is based on the premise that nuclear waste can be disposed of safely, but
proposed storage and disposal facilities have frequently been challenged on safety,
health, and environmental grounds. Although civilian radioactive waste
encompasses a wide range of materials, most of the current debate focuses on highly
radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) calls for disposal of spent
nuclear fuel in a deep geologic repository. NWPA established an office in the
Department of Energy (DOE) to develop such a repository and required the
program’s civilian costs to be covered by a fee on nuclear-generated electricity, paid
into the Nuclear Waste Fund. Amendments to NWPA in 1987 restricted DOE’s
repository site studies to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. DOE is studying numerous
scientific issues at Yucca Mountain in pursuing a license from the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the planned repository. Major questions about
the site include the likelihood of earthquakes, volcanoes, water infiltration, and
The FY2009 budget request for the nuclear waste program is $494.7 million,
28% above the FY2008 appropriation. However, the FY2008 level of $386.4 million
is about $50 million below the FY2007 level and more than $100 million below the
Administration’s FY2008 request. The House Appropriations Committee approved
DOE’s full request for FY2009, and the Senate Appropriations Committee
recommended $388.4 million. Funding for the program is currently under a
continuing resolution (P.L. 110-329).
NWPA’s goal for starting to load waste into the repository was 1998, but that
date has been pushed back repeatedly. The latest budget cuts are likely to delay
waste shipments to Yucca Mountain until at least 2020, according to program
managers. DOE submitted a license application for the repository to NRC June 3,
2008, and NRC docketed the application September 8, 2008. NWPA requires NRC
to issue a licensing decision within four years of receiving DOE’s application. The
NRC license is to be based on radiation exposure standards set by the Environmental
Protection Agency, which issued revised standards September 30, 2008.
The Administration proposed legislation on March 6, 2007, to repeal the
statutory cap on the amount of waste at Yucca Mountain, reduce the scope of
environmental reviews for the repository, change budget procedures so that program
funding could be increased more easily, exempt nuclear waste sent to Yucca
Mountain from disposal requirements under the Resource Conservation and
Recovery Act, and allow preemption of state and local transportation requirements.
A similar bill (H.R. 5360, S. 2589) did not pass in the 109th Congress.
Most Recent Developments..........................................1
In troduction ......................................................2
Spent Nuclear Fuel.............................................2
Nuclear Utility Lawsuits............................................3
Characteristics of Nuclear Waste......................................7
Spent Nuclear Fuel.............................................8
Commercial Low-Level Waste..................................10
Current Policy and Regulation.......................................10
Spent Nuclear Fuel............................................10
Waste Facility Schedules...................................11
Private Interim Storage....................................13
Low-Level Radioactive Waste...................................18
Congressional Hearings, Reports, and Documents.......................22
For Additional Reading............................................22
List of Tables
Table 1. DOE Civilian Spent Fuel Management Funding..................18
Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal
Most Recent Developments
The Department of Energy (DOE) requested $494.7 million for its civilian
nuclear waste program for FY2009, 28% above the FY2008 appropriation. However,
the FY2008 level of $386.4 million is about $50 million below the FY2007 level and
more than $100 million below the Administration’s FY2008 request. The House
Appropriations Committee approved DOE’s full request for FY2009, and the Senate
Appropriations Committee recommended $388.4 million. Funding for the program
is currently under a continuing resolution (P.L. 110-329). Under the Nuclear Waste
Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA), the DOE program is developing an underground
nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. DOE contends that recent
funding reductions will delay the earliest possible opening of the Yucca Mountain
repository to 2020 — 22 years later than required by NWPA.
DOE submitted a license application for the Yucca Mountain repository to the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on June 3, 2008. NRC formally accepted
the application for docketing and review on September 8, 2008. At the same time,
NRC staff recommended that the Commission adopt DOE’s environmental impact
statement for the project, but with a stipulation that supplemental groundwater
analysis be conducted.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued revised radiation exposure
standards for the Yucca Mountain repository on September 30, 2008. EPA’s
previous standards had established exposure limits for 10,000 years, but that
compliance period was found to be too short by a 2005 federal court decision. EPA’s
final standard, which NRC must use in licensing the repository, sets an annual
exposure limit of 15 millirems for the first 10,000 years and 100 millirems for the
period of 10,000 through 1 million years. A separate exposure standard of 4
millirems from groundwater also applies during the first 10,000 years.
DOE updated its life-cycle cost estimate for the Yucca Mountain repository on
August 5, 2008. According to the new estimate, the Yucca Mountain program will
cost $96.2 billion in 2007 dollars from the beginning of the program in 1983 to
repository closure in 2133. DOE’s previous estimate, issued in 2001, was $57.5
billion in 2000 dollars. Major factors in the increase are inflation and a higher
estimate of spent fuel to be generated by existing reactors. Spent fuel from proposed
new reactors is not included in the cost estimate.
The Bush Administration on March 6, 2007, proposed draft nuclear wasteth
legislation similar to legislation in the 109 Congress that was not enacted (H.R.
5360, S. 2589). The draft bill would repeal the 70,000 metric ton limit on the amount
of waste that can be emplaced at Yucca Mountain — a limit that is expected to be
exceeded by currently operating reactors during their lifetimes. The bill also would
reduce the scope of environmental reviews for the repository, change the budget
scoring of waste fee receipts so that program funding could be increased more easily,
exempt nuclear waste sent to Yucca Mountain from disposal requirements under the
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and allow preemption of state and local
transportation requirements. To remove a potential obstacle to new nuclear power
plants posed by Yucca Mountain delays, the bill would require NRC to assume that
sufficient disposal capacity will be available for waste produced by new reactors.
Several of the Administration’s goals are addressed by bills introduced by Senator
Domenici May 23, 2007 (S. 37) and Senator Inhofe January 24, 2008 (S. 2551).
Nuclear waste has sometimes been called the Achilles’ heel of the nuclear
power industry; much of the controversy over nuclear power centers on the lack of
a disposal system for the highly radioactive spent fuel that must be regularly removed
from operating reactors. Low-level radioactive waste generated by nuclear power
plants, industry, hospitals, and other activities is also a longstanding issue.
Spent Nuclear Fuel
Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) and 1987 amendments,
the Department of Energy (DOE) is focusing on Yucca Mountain, Nevada, to house
a deep underground repository for spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive
waste. The State of Nevada has strongly opposed DOE’s efforts on the grounds that
the site is unsafe, pointing to potential volcanic activity, earthquakes, water
infiltration, underground flooding, nuclear chain reactions, and fossil fuel and
mineral deposits that might encourage future human intrusion.
Despite those concerns, DOE contends that the scientific evidence indicates that
Yucca Mountain is suitable and that licensing of the site by the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) should proceed. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
completed by DOE in July 1999 and finalized in February 2002 recommended that
the project proceed as planned. DOE submitted a license application for the
repository to NRC on June 3, 2008. However, DOE officials now do not expect the
planned Yucca Mountain repository to open until 2020 at the earliest, about 22 years
later than the 1998 goal specified by NWPA.1
The safety of geologic disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste
(HLW), as planned in the United States, depends largely on the characteristics of the
rock formations from which a repository would be excavated. Because many
geologic formations are believed to have remained undisturbed for millions of years,
it appeared technically feasible to isolate radioactive materials from the environment
until they decayed to safe levels. “There is strong worldwide consensus that the best,
1 Nuclear Energy Institute, Key Issues, Yucca Mountain, [http://www.nei.org/keyissues/
nuclearwastedisposal/yuccamountain/], viewed April 11, 2008.
safest long-term option for dealing with HLW is geologic isolation,” according to the
National Research Council.2
But, as the Yucca Mountain controversy indicates, scientific confidence about
the concept of deep geologic disposal has turned out to be difficult to apply to
specific sites. Every high-level waste site that has been proposed by DOE and its
predecessor agencies has faced allegations or discovery of unacceptable flaws, such
as water intrusion or earthquake vulnerability, that could release radioactivity into the
environment. Much of the problem results from the inherent uncertainty involved
in predicting waste site performance for the one million years that nuclear waste is
to be isolated.
The Bush Administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) is
intended to address some of those disposal problems by reducing the volume of waste
that would be emplaced in a repository and reducing its long-term radioactivity.
Under GNEP, spent nuclear fuel would be reprocessed, or recycled, by separating
various elements, such as plutonium, that could be made into new fuel and
“transmuted” into shorter-lived radioactive isotopes. Spent fuel reprocessing,
however, has long been controversial because of the potential weapons use of
separated plutonium and cost concerns.
Other types of civilian radioactive waste have also generated public controversy,
particularly low-level radioactive waste, which is produced by nuclear power plants,
medical institutions, industrial operations, and research activities. Civilian low-level
waste currently is disposed of in large trenches at sites in South Carolina and
Washington state. However, the Washington facility does not accept waste from
outside its region, and the South Carolina site will be available only to the three
members of the Atlantic disposal compact (Connecticut, New Jersey, and South
Carolina) after June 30, 2008. The lowest-concentration class of low-level
radioactive waste is also accepted by a Utah commercial disposal facility. Threats by
states to close their disposal facilities led to congressional authorization of regional
compacts for low-level waste disposal in 1985, although no new sites have been
opened by any of the 10 approved disposal compacts. Pursuant to a 2003 Texas
statute, an application to build a disposal facility for commercial and federal low-
level waste in Andrews County, Texas, was filed August 2, 2004, by Waste Control
Specialists LLC. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued a draft
license for the facility August 11, 2008.
Nuclear Utility Lawsuits
Nuclear utilities, which pay for most of the high-level waste disposal program
through a fee on nuclear power, have sued DOE for failing to begin the removal of
2 National Research Council, Board on Radioactive Waste Management, Rethinking
High-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal: A Position Statement of the Board on Radioactive
Waste Management (1990), p. 2.
spent nuclear fuel from storage at commercial reactors by January 31, 1998, the
deadline established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Industry officials contend that
total damages for missing the 1998 disposal deadline could eventually reach tens of
billions of dollars, assuming that no disposal ever takes place.
DOE has been negotiating with various reactor owners since 1999 on the missed
nuclear waste deadline and reached its first settlement agreement with a nuclear
utility, PECO Energy Co. (now part of Exelon), on July 19, 2000. The agreement
allowed PECO to keep up to $80 million in nuclear waste fee revenues during the
subsequent 10 years. However, other utilities sued DOE to block the settlement,
contending that nuclear waste fees may be used only for the DOE waste program and
not as compensation for missing the disposal deadline. The U.S. Court of Appeals
for the 11th Circuit agreed, ruling September 24, 2002, that any compensation would
have to come from general revenues or other sources than the waste fund.
Exelon announced a settlement with the Department of Justice August 10, 2004,
in which compensation for the company’s nuclear waste storage costs would be paid
from the federal Judgment Fund. Exelon, which operates 17 reactors, calculates that
it would be reimbursed $300 million if DOE began taking waste by its previous goal
of 2010, and up to $600 million if the schedule slipped to 2015. As noted above,
DOE now does not expect to begin taking waste until 2020 at the earliest.
The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has since ordered more than $400 million in
payments to utilities in several other nuclear waste delay cases. TVA was awarded
$34.9 million on January 31, 2006, which was paid from the Judgment Fund in
August 2006. Three New England power companies were awarded $142 million on
September 30, 2006, and Pacific Gas & Electric Company was awarded $42.7
million on October 13, 2006.3 Damages of $39 million were awarded on December
4, 2006, to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.4 Xcel Energy was awarded
$116 million in September 2007,5 and Entergy was awarded $58.7 million in October
Duke Energy announced a settlement with DOE on March 6, 2007, in which the
company received an initial payment of $56 million and annual reimbursement for
future storage costs.7 Progress Energy was awarded $82.2 million on May 19, 2008.8
More than 60 utilities have sued DOE over the waste disposal delays. By October
3 Hiruo, Elaine, “Court Awards PG&E Less Than Sought for Spent Fuel Storage Costs,”
Nucleonics Week, October 19, 2006, p. 9.
4 “Court Awards $39 Million to SMUD,” NuclearFuel, December 18, 2006, p. 13.
5 Meyers, Mike, “Xcel Wins Suit Over Spent-Fuel Storage,” McClatchy-Tribune Regional
News, distributed by Energy Central Professional, September 29, 2007.
6 Hiruo, Elaine, “Court Awards Entergy $58.7 Million for Damages in Spent Fuel Cases,”
NuclearFuel, October 22, 2007, p. 3.
7 Hiruo, Elaine, “Duke Receives $56 Million in Spent Fuel Settlement Agreement,”
NuclearFuel, March 12, 2007, p. 11.
8 “Court Awards Progress Utilities $82.8 Million,” NuclearFuel, June 2, 2009, p. 16.
Fund, according to the Congressional Budget Office.9 DOE estimates that the federal
government’s liabilities will reach as much as $11 billion by 2020, the current goal
for starting waste shipments to the repository.10
Although some of the program’s delays have been blamed on poor management,
DOE contends that tight funding has been a major barrier. DOE cannot spend the
nuclear industry’s mandatory waste fees without congressional appropriations, and
only about half the total fees collected have been appropriated to the program so far.
However, some surplus in the fund may be necessary to pay future nuclear waste
disposal costs after today’s nuclear plants have ceased operation. The nuclear
industry and others have long urged changes in the waste program’s funding
mechanism but have consistently been blocked by budget scoring and policy issues.
Continued delays in the Yucca Mountain project have prompted proposals for
a legislative redirection of the nuclear waste program. The Bush Administration
proposed draft legislation on March 6, 2007, that would “facilitate the licensing,
construction, and operation of the repository by 2017,” according to Energy Secretary
Samuel W. Bodman.11
The Administration’s nuclear waste bill is nearly identical to legislation itth
submitted to the 109 Congress (H.R. 5360, S. 2589) that was not enacted. The bill
would reduce the scope of environmental reviews for the repository, change the
budget scoring of waste fee receipts so that program funding could be increased more
easily, exempt nuclear waste sent to Yucca Mountain from disposal requirements
under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), allow preemption of
state and local transportation requirements, and permanently withdraw the site from
public lands use.
To remove a potential obstacle to new nuclear power plants posed by Yucca
Mountain delays, the Administration bill would require NRC to assume that
sufficient disposal capacity would be available for waste produced by new reactors
(known as the “waste confidence” determination). It also would repeal the 70,000
metric ton limit on the amount of waste that could be emplaced at Yucca Mountain,
a limit that is expected to be exceeded by currently operating reactors during their
lifetimes. Notably excluded from the bill is an authorization for interim federal
storage of nuclear waste pending disposal at Yucca Mountain. After the
9 Cawley, Kim, “The Federal Government’s Liabilities Under the Nuclear Waste Policy
Act,” Congressional Budget Office, Statement to House Budget Committee, October 4,
10 Statement of Edward F. Sproat III, Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste
Management, U.S. Department of Energy, to the House Budget Committee, October 4, 2007,
11 Secretary of Energy, transmittal letter for “Nuclear Fuel Management and Disposal Act,”
March 6, 2007.
Administration submitted the proposed legislation to the 110th Congress, DOE Office
of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Director Ward F. Sproat III warned that
if Congress does not lift the Yucca Mountain capacity limit, he will have to
recommend that a site search begin for a second repository.12
Several provisions similar to those in the Administration’s bill are included in
legislation introduced by Senator Domenici on May 23, 2007 (S. 37). Called the
Nuclear Waste Access to Yucca (NUWAY) Act, S. 37 provides for permanent land
withdrawal, repeal of the repository capacity limit, infrastructure and rail line
construction, budget scoring changes, and the NRC waste confidence finding. It
excludes the Administration’s proposed RCRA exemption but includes an
authorization for interim storage of certain waste at Yucca Mountain.
Senator Inhofe introduced a nuclear waste bill on January 24, 2008 (S. 2551)
that would repeal the repository capacity limit, provide for NRC’s waste confidence
finding, and establish a phased licensing system for the repository. Under the phased
licensing proposal, nuclear waste could be retrievably stored in the Yucca Mountain
repository for up to 300 years before DOE would need to receive a license to leave
the waste in the repository permanently.
The State of Nevada strongly opposes the Administration’s Yucca Mountain
legislation. As an alternative approach, Senator Reid introduced legislation on
March 6, 2007, to require commercial nuclear reactor operators to place their spent
nuclear fuel into on-site dry storage casks, which would then become the permanent
responsibility of DOE (S. 784). Opponents of the proposal contend that it would
leave spent fuel at reactor sites indefinitely and undermine the Nuclear Waste Policy
Act. However, supporters argue that the waste would be safer in dry storage at
reactor sites than if it were shipped across the country to Yucca Mountain.
Because of delays in the Yucca Mountain project, the Senate Appropriations
Committee included statutory authorization for the Secretary of Energy to designate
interim storage sites for spent nuclear fuel as part of the FY2007 Energy and Water
Development Appropriations bill (H.R. 5427, Sec. 313). However, the 109th
Congress adjourned without enacting the measure. The Senate Committee’s
provisions would have required the Secretary, after consultation with the governor,
to designate a storage site in each state with a nuclear power plant, if feasible, or to
designate regional storage facilities.
Representative Buyer introduced a broad energy bill (H.R. 6001) on May 8,
2008, that includes provisions to transfer the DOE nuclear waste disposal program
to an independent authority.
President Bush recommended the Yucca Mountain site to Congress on February
15, 2002, and Nevada Governor Guinn submitted a notice of disapproval, or “state
veto,” April 8, 2002, as allowed by NWPA. The state veto would have blocked
further repository development at Yucca Mountain if a resolution approving the site
12 Hiruo, Elaine, “Hoping to Push Repository Forward, DOE Resends Draft Bill to
Congress,” NuclearFuel, March 12, 2007, p. 12.
had not been passed by Congress and signed into law within 90 days of continuous
session. An approval resolution was signed by President Bush July 23, 2002 (P.L.
Characteristics of Nuclear Waste
Radioactive waste is a term that encompasses a broad range of material with
widely varying characteristics. Some waste has relatively slight radioactivity and is
safe to handle, while other types are intensely hot in both temperature and
radioactivity. Some decays to safe levels of radioactivity in a matter of days or
weeks, while other types will remain dangerous for thousands of years. Major types
of radioactive waste are described below:14
Spent nuclear fuel. Fuel rods that have been permanently withdrawn from a
nuclear reactor because they can no longer efficiently sustain a nuclear chain reaction
(although they contain uranium and plutonium that could be extracted through
reprocessing to make new fuel). By far the most radioactive type of civilian nuclear
waste, spent fuel contains extremely hot but relatively short-lived fission products
(fragments of the nuclei of uranium and other fissile elements) as well as long-lived
radionuclides (radioactive atoms) such as plutonium, which remains dangerously
radioactive for tens of thousands of years or more.
High-level waste. Highly radioactive residue created by spent fuel reprocessing
(almost entirely for defense purposes in the United States). High-level waste
contains most of the radioactive fission products of spent fuel, but most of the
uranium and plutonium usually has been removed for re-use. Enough long-lived
radioactive elements remain, however, to require isolation for 10,000 years or more.
Transuranic (TRU) waste. Relatively low-activity waste that contains more than
a certain level of long-lived elements heavier than uranium (primarily plutonium).
Shielding may be required for handling of some types of TRU waste. In the United
States, transuranic waste is generated almost entirely by nuclear weapons production
13 Senator Bingaman introduced the approval resolution in the Senate April 9, 2002
(S.J.Res. 34), and Representative Barton introduced it in the House April 11, 2002 (H.J.Res.
87). The Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality of the House Committee on Energy and
Commerce approved H.J.Res. 87 on April 23 by a 24-2 vote, and the full Committee
approved the measure two days later, 41-6 (H.Rept. 107-425). The resolution was passed
by the House May 8, 2002, by a vote of 306-117. The Senate Committee on Energy and
Natural Resources approved S.J.Res. 34 by a 13-10 vote June 5, 2002 (S.Rept. 107-159).
Following a 60-39 vote to consider S.J.Res. 34, the Senate passed H.J.Res. 87 by voice vote
July 9, 2002.
14 Statutory definitions for “spent nuclear fuel,” “high-level radioactive waste,” and “low-
level radioactive waste” can be found in Section 2 of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982
(42 U.S.C. 10101). “Transuranic waste” is defined in Section 11ee. of the Atomic Energy
Act (42 U.S.C. 2014); Section 11e.(2) of the Act includes uranium mill tailings in the
definition of “byproduct material.” “Mixed waste” consists of chemically hazardous waste
as defined by EPA regulations (40 CFR Part 261, Subparts C and D) that contains
radioactive materials as defined by the Atomic Energy Act.
processes. Because of the plutonium, long-term isolation is required. TRU waste is
being sent to a deep underground repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP),
near Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Low-level waste. Radioactive waste not classified as spent fuel, high-level
waste, TRU waste, or byproduct material such as uranium mill tailings (below). Four
classes of low-level waste have been established by NRC, ranging from least
radioactive and shortest-lived to the longest-lived and most radioactive. Although
some types of low-level waste can be more radioactive than some types of high-level
waste, in general low-level waste contains relatively low amounts of radioactivity
that decays relatively quickly. Low-level waste disposal facilities cannot accept
material that exceeds NRC concentration limits.
Uranium mill tailings. Sand-like residues remaining from the processing of
uranium ore. Such tailings have very low radioactivity but extremely large volumes
that can pose a hazard, particularly from radon emissions or groundwater
Mixed waste. Chemically hazardous waste that includes radioactive material.
High-level, low-level, and TRU waste, and radioactive byproduct material, often falls
under the designation of mixed waste. Such waste poses serious institutional
problems, because the radioactive portion is regulated by DOE or NRC under the
Atomic Energy Act, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the
non-radioactive elements under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
Spent Nuclear Fuel
When spent nuclear fuel is removed from a reactor, usually after several years
of power production, it is thermally hot and highly radioactive. The spent fuel is in
the form of fuel assemblies, which consist of arrays of metal-clad fuel rods 12-15 feet
A fresh fuel rod, which emits relatively little radioactivity, contains uranium that
has been enriched in the isotope U-235 (usually 3%-5%). But after nuclear fission
has taken place in the reactor, many of the uranium nuclei in the fuel rods have been
split into a variety of highly radioactive fission products; others have absorbed
neutrons to become radioactive plutonium, some of which has also split into fission
products. Radioactive gases are also contained in the spent fuel rods. Newly
withdrawn spent fuel assemblies are stored in deep pools of water adjacent to the
reactors to keep them from overheating and to protect workers from radiation.
Spent fuel discharged from U.S. commercial nuclear reactors is currently stored
at 72 power plant sites around the nation, plus two small central storage facilities.
A typical large commercial nuclear reactor discharges an average of 20-30 metric
tons of spent fuel per year — an average of about 2,150 metric tons annually for the
entire U.S. nuclear power industry. The nuclear industry estimated that the total
amount of commercial spent fuel was 56,586 metric tons by January 2008,15 an
amount projected to reach 62,000 metric tons by 2010. Including 7,000 metric tons
of DOE spent fuel and high-level waste that is also planned for disposal at Yucca
Mountain, the total amount would nearly reach NWPA’s 70,000-metric-ton limit by
As long as nuclear power continues to be generated, the amounts stored at plant
sites will continue to grow until an interim storage facility or a permanent repository
can be opened — or until alternative treatment and disposal technology is developed.
DOE recently updated its estimate of the total amount of commercial spent fuel that
may eventually require disposal from 105,000 metric tons16 to 130,000 metric tons.17
New storage capacity at operating nuclear plant sites or other locations will be
required if DOE is unable to begin accepting waste into its disposal system until 2020
or later. Most utilities are expected to construct new dry storage capacity for their
older, cooler fuel. On-site dry storage facilities currently in operation or planned
typically consist of metal casks or concrete modules. NRC has determined that spent
fuel could be stored safely at reactor sites for up to 100 years.18
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, heightened concerns about the
vulnerability of stored spent fuel. Concerns have been raised that an aircraft crash
into a reactor’s pool area or sabotage could drain the pool and cause the spent fuel
inside to overheat. A report released by NRC January 17, 2001, found that
overheating could cause the zirconium alloy cladding of spent fuel to catch fire and
release hazardous amounts of radioactivity, although it characterized the probability
of such a fire as low.
In a report released April 6, 2005, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)
found that “successful terrorist attacks on spent fuel pools, though difficult, are
possible.” To reduce the likelihood of spent fuel cladding fires, the NAS study
recommended that hotter and cooler spent fuel assemblies be interspersed throughout
spent fuel pools, that spray systems be installed above the pools, and that more fuel
be transferred from pools to dry cask storage.19 NRC has agreed to consider some of
the recommendations, although it contends that current security measures would
prevent successful attacks. The nuclear industry contends that the several hours
required for uncovered spent fuel to heat up enough to catch fire would allow ample
15 “Spent Fuel Inventory at 56,586 Metric Tons,” NuclearFuel, January 28, 2008, p. 10.
16 DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, OCRWM Annual Report to
Congress, Fiscal Year 2002, DOE/RW-0560, October 2003, Appendix C.
17 DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Draft Supplemental
Environmental Impact Statement for a Geologic Repository for the Disposal of Spent
Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste at Yucca Mountain, Nye County, Nevada,
Summary, DOE/EIS-0250F-S1D, October 2007, p. S-47.
18 Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Waste Confidence Decision Review, 55 Federal Register
19 National Academy of Sciences, Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel
Storage: Public Report, released April 6, 2005, p. 2.
time for alternative measures to cool the fuel. The FY2006 Energy and Water
appropriations bill (P.L. 109-103) gave NRC an additional $21 million to implement
the NAS recommendations.
Commercial Low-Level Waste
Slightly more than 2.5 million cubic feet of low-level waste with about 1.1
million curies of radioactivity was shipped to commercial disposal sites in 2007,
according to DOE.20 Volumes and radioactivity can vary widely from year to year,
based on the status of nuclear decommissioning projects and cleanup activities that
can generate especially large quantities.
Low-level radioactive waste is divided into three major categories for handling
and disposal: Class A, B, and C. Classes B and C have constituted less than 1% of
the volume of U.S. low-level waste disposal during the past five years but contain
most of its radioactivity. For more background on radioactive waste characteristics,
see CRS Report RL32163, Radioactive Waste Streams: An Overview of Waste
Classification for Disposal, by Anthony Andrews.
Current Policy and Regulation
Spent fuel and high-level waste are a federal responsibility, while states are
authorized to develop disposal facilities for commercial low-level waste. In general,
disposal requirements have grown more stringent over the years, in line with overall
national environmental policy and heightened concerns about the hazards of
Spent Nuclear Fuel
Current Program. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA, P.L.
97-425) established a system for selecting a geologic repository for the permanent
disposal of up to 70,000 metric tons (77,000 tons) of spent nuclear fuel and
high-level waste. DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management
(OCRWM) was created to carry out the program. The Nuclear Waste Fund, holding
receipts from a fee on commercial nuclear power and federal contributions for
emplacement of high-level defense waste, was established to pay for the program.
DOE was required to select three candidate sites for the first national high-level
After much controversy over DOE’s implementation of NWPA, the act was
substantially modified by the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1987 (Title
IV, Subtitle A of P.L. 100-203, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987).
Under the amendments, the only candidate site DOE may consider for a permanent
20 U.S. Department of Energy, Management Information Manifest System,
high-level waste repository is at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. If that site cannot be
licensed, DOE must return to Congress for further instructions.
The 1987 amendments also authorized construction of a monitored retrievable
storage (MRS) facility to store spent fuel and prepare it for delivery to the repository.
But because of fears that the MRS would reduce the need to open the permanent
repository and become a de facto repository itself, the law forbids DOE from
selecting an MRS site until recommending to the President that a permanent
repository be constructed. The repository recommendation occurred in February
Waste Facility Schedules. DOE announced on July 19, 2006, that it would
submit a license application to NRC for the planned Yucca Mountain repository by
June 30, 2008. At the same time, DOE announced that its new goal for starting
nuclear waste shipments to Yucca Mountain would be early 2017. However,
Congress cut the program’s funding for FY2008 by about $50 million below the
FY2007 level and more than $100 million below the Administration’s FY2008
request. The funding cut will force at least 500 layoffs at the Yucca Mountain Project21
and delay the repository’s opening until at least 2020 — 22 years later than required
In preparation for filing the Yucca Mountain license application, DOE certified
on October 19, 2007, that more than 3.5 million documents supporting the planned
application had been made electronically available to the public as required by NRC.
DOE submitted the repository license application on June 3, 2008, and over the
objections of the State of Nevada, NRC formally accepted the application for
docketing and review on September 8, 2008. At the same time, NRC staff
recommended that the Commission adopt DOE’s environmental impact statement for
the project, but with a stipulation that supplemental groundwater analysis be
DOE announced on October 25, 2005, that it would require most spent fuel to
be sealed in standardized canisters before shipment to Yucca Mountain. This change
would largely eliminate the handling of individual fuel assemblies at the site. DOE
issued a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in October 2007 to
reflect the new disposal strategy.23
The major activity at the Yucca Mountain site so far has been the construction
and operation of an “exploratory studies facility” (ESF) with a 25-foot-diameter
tunnel boring machine. The ESF consists primarily of a five-mile tunnel with ramps
leading to the surface at its north and south ends. The tunnel boring machine began
excavating the north ramp in October 1994 and broke through to the surface at the
21 Rogers, Keith, “Yucca Mountain Layoffs Imminent, Official Warns,” Las Vegas
Review-Journal, January 18, 2008 (through Energy Central Professional).
22 Licensing documents are posted at [http://www.rw.doe.gov/].
23 DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Draft Supplemental
Environmental Impact Statement, op cit.
south entrance April 25, 1997. Underground studies have been conducted at several
side alcoves that were excavated off the main tunnel.
DOE completed a “viability assessment” of Yucca Mountain in December 1998,
which was followed by a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project
in July 1999. DOE issued a preliminary site suitability evaluation August 21, 2001,
that found Yucca Mountain could meet EPA and NRC requirements.
Energy Secretary Abraham on February 14, 2002, recommended to President
Bush that the Yucca Mountain project go forward. At the same time, the Secretary
submitted the final EIS and other supporting materials. As noted previously,
President Bush recommended the Yucca Mountain site to Congress the day after the
Secretary’s recommendation, and Nevada Governor Guinn subsequently submitted
a notice of disapproval, or “state veto,” as allowed by NWPA. An approval
resolution passed by the House and Senate to overturn the state veto was signed by
the President July 23, 2002 (P.L. 107-200).
DOE announced April 8, 2004, that it planned to transport nuclear waste mostly
by rail to the planned Yucca Mountain repository. The Record of Decision on the
waste transportation mode was published in the Federal Register along with the
selection of a corridor in Nevada for a 300-mile rail spur to the Yucca Mountain site.
DOE estimated that Yucca Mountain would receive 9,000-10,000 rail shipments and
3,000-3,300 truck shipments over a 24-year period after the repository opened. On
October 13, 2006, DOE announced in the Federal Register that a second, shorter rail
route to Yucca Mountain would also be considered. However, permission to use
tribal land for the shorter route was withdrawn on April 17, 2007, so DOE is again
focusing on the 300-mile option. The repository is to be permanently closed after
about 100 years of operation, according to DOE’s draft supplemental EIS.24
The quality of scientific work at Yucca Mountain was called into question by
DOE’s March 16, 2005, disclosure of e-mails from geologists indicating that some
quality assurance documentation had been falsified. DOE issued a technical report
in February 2006 that found that previous scientific conclusions about Yucca
Mountain had not been affected by the quality assurance problems. However, DOE
announced at the same time that some of the previous work would be redone or
supplemented.25 The Government Accountability Office in March 2006 found
chronic quality assurance problems in the Yucca Mountain project.26 Members of the
Nevada congressional delegation and state officials have called for the Yucca
24 U.S. DOE, Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, op. cit., p. S10.
25 DOE Office of Public Affairs, Technical Report Confirms Reliability of Yucca Mountain
Technical Work, February 17, 2006.
26 U.S. Government Accountability Office, Yucca Mountain: Quality Assurance at DOE’s
Planned Nuclear Waste Repository Needs Increased Management Attention, GAO-06-313,
March 2006, p. 6.
Mountain project to be suspended and for an independent commission to review all
of DOE’s scientific work at Yucca Mountain.27
The State of Nevada is also fighting DOE in court. A suit filed in June 2002
charged DOE with violating NWPA by relying too strongly on casks and other
engineered barriers to prevent radioactive releases, rather than on Yucca Mountain’s
natural site characteristics. Another suit, filed January 9, 2003, contended that
Congress violated the Constitution in eliminating all candidate waste sites except
Yucca Mountain. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
rejected those challenges July 9, 2004, but it struck down EPA’s 10,000-year
regulatory compliance period as too short (discussed in more detail below).
Delays in the Yucca Mountain project have prompted congressional interest in
alternative nuclear waste management technologies. The FY2006 Energy and Water
Development Appropriations Act28 included $50 million for DOE to develop a spent
nuclear fuel recycling plan, in conjunction with a recycling technology development
plan required under the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI). DOE submitted the
required program plan in May 2006.29
The FY2006 appropriations measure also required DOE to select a nuclear
recycling site in FY2007 and begin construction in FY2010. Applicants for a
recycling facility were eligible for as much as $5 million per site, up to a total of $20
million, to prepare detailed proposals. DOE selected 11 sites to receive the grants on
November 29, 2006, and the reports were submitted May 1, 2007.30
Private Interim Storage. In response to delays in the federal nuclear waste
program, a utility consortium signed an agreement with the Skull Valley Band of the
Goshute Indians in Utah on December 27, 1996, to develop a private spent fuel
storage facility on tribal land. The Private Fuel Storage (PFS) consortium submitted
a license application to NRC on June 25, 1997, and an NRC licensing board
recommended approval on February 24, 2005. On September 9, 2005, NRC denied
the State of Utah’s final appeals and authorized the NRC staff to issue the license.
The 20-year license for storing up to 44,000 tons of spent fuel in dry casks was issued
on February 21, 2006, although NRC noted that Interior Department approval would
also be required.
On September 7, 2006, the Department of the Interior issued two decisions
against the PFS project. The Bureau of Indian Affairs disapproved a proposed lease
of tribal trust lands to PFS, concluding there was too much risk that the waste could
remain at the site indefinitely.31 The Bureau of Land Management rejected the
27 Elaine Hiruo, “DOE Sought Help From Scientist Who Wrote E-mails,” NuclearFuel,
April 11, 2005, p. 1.
28 H.Rept. 109-275, P.L. 109-103.
29 DOE, Spent Nuclear Fuel Recycling Plan, May 2006.
30 Cached by Google under “GNEP siting studies.”
31 Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record of Decision for the Construction and Operation of an
necessary rights-of-way to transport waste to the facility, concluding that a proposed
rail line would be incompatible with the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area and that
existing roads would be inadequate.32
In reaction to the Interior Department decisions, Senator Hatch, a staunch
opponent of the PFS proposal, declared the project “stone cold dead.”33 However,
the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes and PFS filed a federal lawsuit July 17, 2007, to
overturn the Interior decisions on the grounds that they were politically motivated.34
Regulatory Requirements. NWPA requires that high-level waste facilities
be licensed by the NRC in accordance with general standards issued by EPA. Under
the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-486), EPA was required to write new
standards specifically for Yucca Mountain. NWPA also requires the repository to
meet general siting guidelines prepared by DOE and approved by NRC.
Transportation of waste to storage and disposal sites is regulated by NRC and the
Department of Transportation (DOT). Under NWPA, DOE shipments to Yucca
Mountain must use NRC-certified casks and comply with NRC requirements for
notifying state and local governments. Yucca Mountain shipments must also follow
DOT regulations on routing, placarding, and safety.
NRC’s licensing requirements for Yucca Mountain, at 10 C.F.R. 63, require
compliance with EPA’s standards (described below) and establish procedures that
DOE must follow in seeking a repository license. For example, DOE must conduct
a repository performance confirmation program that would indicate whether natural
and man-made systems were functioning as intended and assure that other
assumptions about repository conditions were accurate.
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-486) made a number of changes in the
nuclear waste regulatory system, particularly that EPA must issue new environmental
standards specifically for the Yucca Mountain repository site. General EPA
repository standards previously issued and subsequently revised no longer apply to
Yucca Mountain. DOE and NRC had raised concern that some of EPA’s general35
standards might be impossible or impractical to meet at Yucca Mountain.
The new standards, which limit the radiation dose that the repository could
impose on individual members of the public, were required to be consistent with the
Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI) on the Reservation of the Skull Valley
Band of Goshute Indians (Band) in Tooele County, Utah, September 7, 2006.
32 Bureau of Land Management, Record of Decision Addressing Right-of-Way Applications
U 76985 and U 76986 to Transport Spent Nuclear Fuel to the Reservation of the Skull
Valley Band of Goshute Indians, September 7, 2006.
33 Senator Orrin Hatch, Utahns Deliver Killing Blow to Skull Valley Nuke Waste Plan, News
Release, September 7, 2006.
34 Winslow, Ben, “Gosutes, PFS Sue Interior,” Deseret Morning News, July 18, 2007.
35 See, for example: NRC, “Analysis of Energy Policy Act of 1992 Issues Related to High-
Level Waste Disposal Standards, SECY-93-013, January 25, 1993, attachment p. 4.
findings of a study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which was issued
August 1, 1995.36 The NAS study recommended that the Yucca Mountain
environmental standards establish a limit on risk to individuals near the repository,
rather than setting specific limits for the releases of radioactive material or on
radioactive doses, as under previous EPA standards. The NAS study also examined
the potential for human intrusion into the repository and found no scientific basis for
predicting human behavior thousands of years into the future.
Pursuant to the Energy Policy Act, EPA published its proposed Yucca Mountain
radiation protection standards on August 27, 1999. The proposal would have limited
annual radiation doses to 15 millirems for the “reasonably maximally exposed
individual,” and to 4 millirems from groundwater exposure, for the first 10,000 years
of repository operation. EPA calculated that its standard would result in an annual
risk of fatal cancer for the maximally exposed individual of seven chances in a
million. The nuclear industry criticized the EPA proposal as being unnecessarily
stringent, particularly the groundwater standard. On the other hand, environmental
groups contended that the 10,000-year standard proposed by EPA was too short,
because DOE had projected that radioactive releases from the repository would peak
after about 400,000 years.
EPA issued its final Yucca Mountain standards on June 6, 2001. The final
standards included most of the major provisions of the proposed version, including
the 15 millirem overall exposure limit and the 4 millirem groundwater limit. Despite
the Department’s opposition to the EPA standards, DOE’s site suitability evaluation
determined that the Yucca Mountain site would be able to meet them. NRC revised
its repository regulations September 7, 2001, to conform to the EPA standards.
A three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel on July 9, 2004, struck down the
10,000-year regulatory compliance period in the EPA and NRC Yucca Mountain
standards.37 The court ruled that the 10,000-year period was inconsistent with the
NAS study on which the Energy Policy Act required the Yucca Mountain regulations
to be based. In fact, the court found, the NAS study had specifically rejected a
10,000-year compliance period because of analysis that showed peak radioactive
exposures from the repository would take place several hundred thousand years in the
In response to the court decision, EPA proposed a new version of the Yucca
Mountain standards on August 9, 2005. The proposal would have retained the dose
limits of the previous standard for the first 10,000 years but allowed a higher annual
dose of 350 millirems for the period of 10,000 years through 1 million years. EPA
also proposed to base the post-10,000-year Yucca Mountain standard on the median
dose, rather than the mean, potentially making it easier to meet.38 Nevada state
36 National Research Council. Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards. National
Academy Press. 1995.
37 Nuclear Energy Institute v. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Court of Appeals for
the District of Columbia Circuit, No. 01-1258, July 9, 2004.
38 Especially high doses at the upper end of the exposure range would raise the mean, or
officials called EPA’s proposed standard far too lenient and charged that it was
“unlawful and arbitrary.”39
EPA issued its final rule to amend the Yucca Mountain standards on September
30, 2008. The final rule reduces the annual dose limit during the period of 10,000
through 1 million years from the proposed 350 millirems to 100 millirems, which the
agency contended was consistent with international standards. Under the final rule,
compliance with the post-10,000-year standard will be based on the arithmetic mean
of projected doses, rather than the median as proposed. The 4 millirem groundwater
standard will continue to apply only to the first 10,000 years.40 NRC will have to
revise its repository licensing regulations to conform to the new EPA standards. (For
more information, see CRS Report RL34698, EPA’s Final Health and Safety
Standard for Yucca Mountain, by Bonnie C. Gitlin.)
DOE estimated in its June 2008 Final Supplemental Environmental Impact
Statement (FSEIS) for the Yucca Mountain repository that the maximum mean
annual individual dose after 10,000 years would be 2 millirems. That is substantially
below the level estimated by the 2002 Final Environmental Impact Statement, which
calculated that the peak doses — occurring after 400,000 years — would be about
150 millirems (Volume 1, Chapter 5). The FSEIS attributed the reduction to changes
in DOE’s computer model and in the assumptions used, noting that “various elements
of DOE’s modeling approach may be challenged as part of the NRC licensing
Alternative Technologies. Several alternatives to the geologic disposal of
spent fuel have been studied by DOE and its predecessor agencies, as well as
technologies that might make waste disposal easier. However, most of these
technologies involve large technical obstacles, uncertain costs, and potential public
Among the primary long-term disposal alternatives to geologic repositories are
disposal in deep ocean trenches and transport into space, neither of which is currently
being studied by DOE. Other technologies have been studied that, while probably
not replacing geologic disposal, might make geologic disposal safer and more
predictable. Chief among these is the reprocessing or “recycling” of spent fuel so
that plutonium, uranium, and other long-lived radionuclides could be converted to
faster-decaying fission products in special nuclear reactors or particle accelerators.
The spent fuel recycling provisions in recent Energy and Water Development
average, more than the median, or the halfway point in the data set.
39 Office of the Governor, Agency for Nuclear Projects. Comments by the State of Nevada
on EPA’s Proposed New Radiation Protection Rule for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste
Repository. November 2005.
40 Posted on the EPA website at [http://www.epa.gov/radiation/yucca]
41 FSEIS, p. S-42. Posted on the DOE website at [http://www.rw.doe.gov/ym_repository/
Appropriations bills and the Administration’s GNEP initiative, discussed above,
seem to indicate continuing interest in this area.
Funding. The FY2009 OCRWM budget request was $494.7 million; the
House Appropriations Committee approved the full amount, and the Senate
Appropriations Committee recommended $388.4 million. Funding for the program
is currently under a continuing resolution (P.L. 110-329). The FY2009 request is
more than $100 million (28%) above the FY2008 appropriation of $386.4 million,
but the FY2008 level is about $50 million below the FY2007 level and more than
$100 million below the Administration’s FY2008 request. The FY2008 funding
reductions required OCRWM to reduce its workforce by about 900, according to the
Funding for the nuclear waste program is provided under two appropriations
accounts, as shown in Table 1. The Administration requested $247.4 million for
FY2009 from the Nuclear Waste Fund, which holds fees paid by nuclear utilities. An
additional $247.4 million was requested in the Defense Nuclear Waste Disposal
account, which pays for disposal of high-level waste from the nuclear weapons
program in the planned Yucca Mountain repository. The House Appropriations
Committee recommended the full amount for both accounts for FY2009, while the
Senate panel recommended $195.4 million from the Waste Disposal account and
$193.0 million from the defense account.
Although nuclear utilities pay fees to the Nuclear Waste Fund to cover the
disposal costs of civilian nuclear spent fuel, DOE cannot spend the money in the fund
until it is appropriated by Congress. Through September 1, 2008, utility nuclear
waste fees and interest totaled $28.136 billion, of which $7.094 billion had been
disbursed to the waste disposal program, according to DOE’s program summary
report, leaving a balance of $21.071 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund. In addition
to the disbursements from the Nuclear Waste Fund, the waste disposal program
received defense waste disposal appropriations totaling $2.969 billion through
FY2008, according to DOE.43
DOE’s latest update of its Analysis of the Total System Life Cycle Cost of the
Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Program was released on August 5, 2008.44
According to the new estimate, the Yucca Mountain program will cost $96.2 billion
in 2007 dollars from the beginning of the program in 1983 to repository closure in
Major factors in the increase are inflation and a higher estimate of spent fuel to be
42 Statement of Edward F. Sproat III, OCRWM Director, to the Energy and Water
Development Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, April 10, 2008.
43 DOE, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Office of Program
Management, Monthly Summary of Program Financial and Budget Information, as of
September 1, 2008, available at [http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/about/budget/money.shtml].
The report notes that some figures may not add due to independent rounding.
44 Available on the OCRWM website at
[ ht t p: / / www.r w.doe.gov/ a bout / budget / pdf / T SLCC_2007_8_05_08.pdf ]
generated by existing reactors. Spent fuel from proposed new reactors is not included
in the cost estimate.
Table 1. DOE Civilian Spent Fuel Management Funding
(in millions of current dollars)
FY2007 FY2008 FY2009 House Sena t e
Program Appro p. Appro p. Request C o mm. C o mm.
Yucca Mountain298.1267.1372.8 — a —
Transportation35.318.320.0 — —
Management and Integration46.726.427.0 — —
Program Direction64.474.775.0 — —
To tal 445.7 386.4 494.7 494.7 388.4
Source of Funding
Nuclear Waste Fund appropriations99.2187.3247.4274.3195.4
Defense waste appropriations346.5199.2247.4274.4193.0
Sources: DOE FY2009 Congressional Budget Request.
a. Subcategories not specified.
Low-Level Radioactive Waste
Current Policy. Selecting disposal sites for low-level radioactive waste,
which generally consists of low concentrations of relatively short-lived radionuclides,
is a state responsibility under the 1980 Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act and
1985 amendments. Most states have joined congressionally approved interstate
compacts to handle low-level waste disposal, while others are developing single-state
disposal sites. Under the 1985 amendments, the nation’s three (at that time)
operating commercial low-level waste disposal facilities could start refusing to accept
waste from outside their regional interstate compacts after the end of 1992. One of
the three sites closed, and the remaining two are using their congressionally granted
authority to prohibit waste from outside their regional compacts. Another site, in
Utah, has since become available nationwide for most Class A low-level waste, but
no site is currently open to nationwide disposal of all major types of low-level waste.
Despite the 1992 deadline, no new disposal sites have been opened under the
Low-Level Waste Act. Legislation providing congressional consent to a disposal
compact among Texas, Maine, and Vermont was signed by President Clinton
September 20, 1998 (P.L. 105-236). However, on October 22, 1998, a proposed
disposal site near Sierra Blanca, Texas, was rejected by the Texas Natural Resource
Conservation Commission, and Maine has since withdrawn. Texas Governor Perry
signed legislation June 20, 2003, authorizing the Texas Commission on Environment
Quality to license adjoining disposal facilities for commercial and federally generated
low-level waste. Pursuant to that statute, an application to build a disposal facility
for commercial and federal low-level waste in Andrews County, Texas, was filed
August 2, 2004, by Waste Control Specialists LLC. The Texas Commission on
Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issued a draft license for the facility August 11,
The Midwestern Compact voted June 26, 1997, to halt development of a
disposal facility in Ohio. Nebraska regulators rejected a proposed waste site for the
Central Compact December 21, 1998, drawing a lawsuit from five utilities in the
region. A U.S. district court judge ruled September 30, 2002, that Nebraska had
exercised bad faith in disapproving the site and ordered the state to pay $151 million
to the compact. A settlement was reached August 9, 2004, resulting in a payment of
$145.8 million,46 and the compact is seeking access to the planned Texas disposal
facility. Most other regional disposal compacts and individual states that have not
joined compacts are making little progress toward finding disposal sites.
The disposal facility at Barnwell, South Carolina, is currently accepting all Class
A, B, and C low-level waste from the Atlantic Compact (formerly the Northeast
Compact), in which South Carolina joined original members Connecticut and New
Jersey on July 1, 2000. Under the compact, South Carolina can limit the use of the
Barnwell facility to the three compact members, and a state law enacted in June 2000
phased out acceptance of non-compact waste through June 30, 2008. The Barnwell
facility previously had stopped accepting waste from outside the Southeast Compact
at the end of June 1994. The Southeast Compact Commission in May 1995 twice
rejected a South Carolina proposal to open the Barnwell site to waste generators
outside the Southeast and to bar access to North Carolina until that state opened a
new regional disposal facility, as required by the compact. The rejection of those
proposals led the South Carolina General Assembly to vote in 1995 to withdraw from
the Southeast Compact and begin accepting waste at Barnwell from all states but
North Carolina. North Carolina withdrew from the Southeast Compact July 26,
The only other existing disposal facility for all three major classes of low-level
waste is at Hanford, Washington. Controlled by the Northwest Compact, the
Hanford site will continue taking waste from the neighboring Rocky Mountain
Compact under a contract. Since the South Carolina facility closed to out-of-region
waste, the 36 states and the District of Columbia that are outside the Northwest,
Rocky Mountain, and Atlantic Compacts have had no disposal site for Class B and
C low-level waste. Waste generators in those states must store their Class B and C
waste on site until new disposal sites are available.
Regulatory Requirements. Licensing of commercial low-level waste
facilities is carried out under the Atomic Energy Act by NRC or by “agreement
states” with regulatory programs approved by NRC. NRC regulations governing
low-level waste licenses must conform to general environmental protection standards
45 Available on the TCEQ website at [http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/permitting/radmat/
46 USAToday.com, August 1, 2005, [http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/
and radiation protection guidelines issued by EPA. Transportation of low-level waste
is jointly regulated by NRC and the Department of Transportation.
Most states considering new or expanded low-level waste disposal facilities,
including Texas and Utah, are agreement states. Most states, both agreement and
non-agreement, have established substantially stricter technical requirements for
low-level waste disposal than NRC’s, such as banning shallow land burial and
requiring concrete bunkers and other engineered barriers. NRC would issue the
licenses in non-agreement states.
Disposal of radioactive waste will be a key issue in the continuing nuclear
power debate. Without a national disposal system, spent fuel from nuclear power
plants must be stored on-site indefinitely. This situation may raise public concern
near proposed reactor sites, particularly at sites without existing reactors where spent
nuclear fuel is already stored. Several states have tied approval of new reactors to the
availability of waste disposal capacity.47
Under current law, the federal government’s waste disposal policy is focused
on the planned Yucca Mountain repository. Despite presidential and congressional
approval for the Yucca Mountain licensing process to go forward, DOE will face
relentless opposition from the State of Nevada during NRC licensing proceedings.
EPA’s proposed new environmental standards for Yucca Mountain may face legal
challenges as well, which could further slow the process.
Because of their waste-disposal contracts with DOE, owners of existing reactors
are likely to continue seeking damages from the federal government if disposal
delays continue. DOE’s 2004 settlement with the nation’s largest nuclear operator,
Exelon, could require payments of up to $600 million from the federal judgment
fund, and DOE estimates that payments could rise to $11 billion if Yucca Mountain
does not open before 2020. The nuclear industry has predicted that future damages
could reach tens of billions of dollars if the federal disposal program fails altogether.
The Administration’s proposed nuclear waste legislation is intended to remove
some of the obstacles to opening Yucca Mountain and to remove the lack of
permanent waste disposal as an obstacle to licensing new nuclear power plants. The
House and Senate Appropriations Committees in the 109th Congress urged that the
federal government provide interim storage of spent nuclear fuel pending a
permanent solution, but that option has proven highly controversial in the past.
The Administration’s proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership would open
the door for spent fuel reprocessing as a long-term option for handling nuclear waste.
Reprocessing (or recycling) proponents have long contended that direct disposal of
spent fuel — as currently planned — would waste a potentially vast energy resource
47 Lovell, David L., Wisconsin Legislative Council Staff, State Statutes Limiting the
Construction of Nuclear Power Plants, October 5, 2006.
and that reprocessing could reduce the long-term hazard posed by nuclear waste.
However, the United States has not pursued commercial reprocessing since the
1970s, because of concerns over nuclear weapons proliferation and costs. Heated
reaction, both pro and con, to the Administration’s latest initiative indicates that the
controversy has not receded in the meantime.
H.R. 2282 (Schmidt)
Nuclear Waste Storage Prohibition Act. Prohibits DOE from using GNEP funds
to store nuclear waste at any site where reprocessing facilities are not operating or
under construction. Introduced May 10, 2007; referred to Committee on Energy and
H.R. 5632 (Gordon)
Prohibits importation of certain low-level radioactive waste into the United
States. Introduced March 13, 2008; referred to committees on Energy and Commerce
and Ways and Means.
H.R. 5943 (Burgess)
Nuclear Used Fuel Prize Act of 2008. Authorizes the Secretary of Energy to
establish monetary prizes for technical advances in spent nuclear fuel management.
Introduced May 1, 2008; referred to Committee on Science and Technology.
H.R. 6001 (Buyer)
Main Street U.S.A. Energy Security Act of 2008. Includes provisions to transfer
the DOE nuclear waste disposal program to an independent authority and to
encourage nuclear power growth. Introduced May 8, 2008; referred to multiple
H.R. 6132 (Barton)
Authorizes the Nuclear Waste Fund to be used for nuclear spent fuel recycling.
Introduced May 22, 2008; referred to committees on Energy and Commerce and
S. 37 (Domenici)
Nuclear Waste Access to Yucca Act. Permanently withdraws Yucca Mountain
site from public use, authorizes nuclear waste interim storage facilities at Yucca
Mountain, repeals the Yucca Mountain capacity limit, and makes other changes in
the nuclear waste program. Introduced May 23, 2007; referred to Committee on
Energy and Natural Resources.
S. 784 (Reid)/H.R. 4062 (Matheson)
Federal Accountability for Nuclear Waste Storage Act of 2007. Requires
commercial nuclear power plants to transfer spent fuel from pools to dry storage
casks and then convey title to the Secretary of Energy. Senate bill introduced March
6, 2007; referred to Committee on Environment and Public Works. House bill
introduced November 1, 2007; referred to Committee on Energy and Commerce.
S. 2551 (Inhofe)
Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2008. Repeals the repository
capacity limit, provides for NRC’s waste confidence finding, and establishes a
phased licensing system for the repository. Introduced January 24, 2008; referred to
Committee on Environment and Public Works.
S. 3215 (Domenici)
Strengthening Management of Advanced Recycling Technologies Act of 2008.
Requires DOE to offer cooperative agreements for licensing spent nuclear fuel
recycling facilities. Introduced June 26, 2008; referred to Committee on Energy and
S. 3258 (Dorgan)
Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act,
2009. Provides funding for nuclear energy programs. Reported as an original
measure from the Appropriations Committee July 14, 2008 (S.Rept. 110-416).
Congressional Hearings, Reports, and Documents
U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Energy and Commerce. Subcommittee on
Energy and Air Quality. A Review of the President’s Recommendation to
Develop a Nuclear Waste Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Hearing,thnd
Serial no. 107-99.
U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Low-Levelthnd
Radioactive Waste. Hearing, 108 Congress, 2 session. September 30, 2004.
Washington: GPO, 2005. 62 p.
U.S. Congress. Senate. Yucca Mountain Repository Development. Hearings, 107thst
Congress, 1 session. May 16, 22, and 23, 2002. Washington: GPO, 2002. 240
p. S.Hrg. 107-483.
For Additional Reading
Harvard University. John F. Kennedy School of Government. Belfer Center for
Science and International Affairs. The Economics of Reprocessing vs. Direct
Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel. DE-FG26-99FT4028. December 2003.
Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. Report to the U.S. Congress and the U.S.
Secretary of Energy. September 2008.
U.S. Department of Energy. Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management home
page; covers DOE activities for disposal, transportation, and other management
of civilian nuclear waste. [http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov].
U.S. General Accounting Office. Low-Level Radioactive Waste: Disposal
Availability Adequate in the Short Term, but Oversight Needed to Identify Any
Future Shortfalls. GAO-04-604. June 2004. 53 p.