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United States Government Accountability Office: 


Before the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, Committee on 
Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives: 

For Release on Delivery: 
Expected at 1:00 p.m. EDT:
Wednesday, June 1, 2011: 

Nuclear Waste: 

Disposal Challenges and Lessons Learned from Yucca Mountain: 

Statement of Mark Gaffigan, Managing Director: 
Natural Resources and Environment: 


GAO Highlights: 

Highlights of GAO-11-731T, a testimony before the Subcommittee on 
Environment and the Economy, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House 
of Representatives. 

Why GAO Did This Study: 

The United States has generated over 75,000 metric tons of spent 
nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste—extremely hazardous 
substances—at 80 sites in 35 states and is expected to more than 
double that amount by 2055. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 
(NWPA) required the Department of Energy (DOE) to investigate a 
geologic repository for nuclear waste. In 1987, Congress amended NWPA 
to direct DOE to focus on a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. In 
2008, DOE submitted a license application for the repository but in 
March 2010 moved to withdraw it. However, the Nuclear Regulatory 
Commission (NRC) or the courts—as a result of federal lawsuits—might 
compel DOE to resume the licensing process. GAO has reported on 
options for interim storage of this waste and the effects a Yucca 
Mountain termination could have on both commercial waste and DOE-
managed waste. This testimony is based on that prior work and 
discusses (1) the status of the Yucca Mountain repository and national 
policy for nuclear waste disposal, (2) options for storing nuclear 
waste and their benefits and challenges, and (3) principal lessons 
that can be learned from past nuclear waste management efforts. 

What GAO Found: 

Uncertainties exist about the direction of the nation’s policy for 
nuclear waste disposal. Under NWPA, DOE investigated Yucca Mountain as 
a site for a repository. In 2002, DOE recommended the site to the 
President and in 2008 submitted a license application to NRC. DOE is 
now seeking to withdraw the application from NRC’s Atomic Safety and 
Licensing Board. DOE did not cite technical or safety issues but 
stated that Yucca Mountain is not a workable option because of a lack 
of public acceptance by the people of Nevada. On June 29, 2010, the 
board denied DOE’s motion, ruling that NWPA requires DOE to continue 
the licensing effort. The NRC commissioners announced they might 
consider reviewing the board’s decision, but as of May 26, 2011, no 
review had been announced. Separately, state and local governments and 
a private party filed suit in federal court against DOE and NRC in an 
effort to stop the repository termination. The court has not yet 
ruled. Amid this uncertainty, DOE took steps to shut down Yucca 
Mountain by September 30, 2010. DOE also established a Blue Ribbon 
Commission to evaluate alternatives for nuclear waste disposal, which 
plans to report by January 2012. 

Three primary waste storage options offer benefits but also face 
challenges, including high costs. Two options are for interim storage—-
continued on-site or centralized storage-—which could allow time for 
research into new approaches that might have wider public acceptance 
than the Yucca Mountain permanent repository. Continued on-site 
storage would require less effort to implement since it is the current 
method of waste storage. However, this option could trigger 
significant financial liabilities as a result of industry lawsuits 
stemming from DOE’s failure to accept the waste in 1998, as required 
under NWPA. The federal government has already paid $956 million, and 
future liabilities are estimated to be at least $15.4 billion through 
2020. DOE and the Navy also might not meet certain commitments to 
remove their waste from two states, which could bring penalties and a 
suspension of the Navy’s shipments of spent fuel, raising concerns 
about the Navy’s ability to refuel its nuclear-powered warships. The 
second interim option, centralized interim storage, may face 
challenges because DOE states that it currently has no authority to 
implement this option. The third option, a geologic repository, is 
widely considered the only currently feasible option for permanently 
disposing of nuclear waste. DOE has faced challenges in identifying an 
acceptable site for permanent geologic disposal. Restarting the search 
would likely take decades and cost billions of dollars. 

Published reports and interviews—-with federal, state, and local 
government officials and representatives of various organizations—-
suggest two broad lessons that can be learned from past nuclear waste 
management efforts. First, transparency, economic incentives, and 
education are important tools for gaining public acceptance. Second, 
it is important for any waste management strategy to have consistent 
policy, funding, and leadership, particularly since the process will 
take decades. An independent organization with a more predictable 
funding mechanism may be better suited than DOE to oversee nuclear 
waste management. 

What GAO Recommends: 

GAO is making no new recommendations at this time and continues to 
believe that implementing the recommendations in its March (GAO-11-
230) and April 2011 (GAO-11-229) reports could improve DOE’s efforts 
to manage and store nuclear waste. 

View [hyperlink,] or key 
components. For more information, contact Mark Gaffigan at (202) 512-
3841 or 

[End of section] 

Chairman Shimkus, Ranking Member Green, and Members of the 

I am pleased to be here today to discuss our recent work evaluating 
efforts to manage and store spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear 
waste in the United States. Nuclear energy generates about 20 percent 
of the nation's electric power and, as a domestic source of 
electricity with low emissions, is a critical part of our energy 
infrastructure. In addition, military use of nuclear material--in 
nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered warships--plays a vital role in 
our national defense. However, both of these activities generate 
nuclear waste--referred to as spent nuclear fuel in the case of fuel 
removed from a reactor and as high-level waste for material that is a 
by-product of weapons production and other defense-related activities. 
This nuclear waste has been accumulating since the mid-1940s and 
currently totals over 75,000 metric tons at 80 sites in 35 states, 
enough to fill a football field about 15 feet deep. Furthermore, this 
waste is expected to increase by about 2,000 metric tons per year, 
more than doubling, to 153,000 metric tons by 2055.[Footnote 1] 

Although these nuclear technologies have been in use for decades, the 
United States has yet to implement a plan for permanently disposing of 
its nuclear waste. Since the publication of a 1957 report by the 
National Academy of Sciences, a geological repository[Footnote 2] has 
been considered the safest and most secure method of disposing of 
nuclear waste. During the 1960s and 1970s, the United States embarked 
on several efforts to evaluate potential disposal sites for a 
permanent repository but no repository resulted from these efforts. 
Then, in the 1980s, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) 
established a federal policy for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel 
and high-level waste. Under NWPA, the Department of Energy (DOE) was 
directed with investigating sites for a federal deep geologic 
repository to dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear 
waste. In 1987, Congress amended NWPA to direct DOE to focus its 
effort solely on Yucca Mountain--a site about 100 miles northwest of 
Las Vegas, Nevada. After more than 2 decades and spending nearly $15 
billion,[Footnote 3] in 2008, DOE submitted a license application to 
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) seeking authorization to 
construct a high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain.[Footnote 4] 
DOE planned to open the repository in 2017, although it later delayed 
the planned opening date to 2020 (see fig. 1 for the current storage 
sites and proposed repository). 

Figure 1: Current Storage Sites and Proposed Repository for High-Level 
Nuclear Waste: 

[Refer to PDF for image: U.S. map] 

Proposed repository: 
Yucca Mountain, Nevada. 

DOE sites: 
Fort St. Vrain, Colorado; 
Hanford Site, Washington; 
Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho; 
Savannah River Site, South Carolina; 
West Valley Demonstration Project, New York. 

Commercial sites: 

Arkansas Nuclear One, Arkansas; 
Beaver Valley, Pennsylvania; 
Big Rock Point, Michigan; 
Braidwood, Illinois; 
Browns Ferry, Alabama; 
Brunswick, North Carolina; 
Byron, Illinois; 
Callaway, Missouri; 
Calvert Cliffs, Maryland; 
Catawba, North Carolina; 
Clinton, Illinois; 
Comanche Peak, Texas; 
Cooper Station, Nebraska; 
Columbia Generating Station, Washington; 
Crystal River, Florida; 
Davis-Besse, Ohio; 
D.C. Cook, Michigan; 
Diablo Canyon, California; 
Dresden & Morris, Illinois; 
Duane Arnold, Iowa; 
Edwin I. Hatch, Georgia; 
Fermi, Michigan; 
Fort Calhoun, Nebraska; 
Ginna, New York; 
Grand Gulf, Mississippi; 
Haddem Neck, Connecticut; 
H.B. Robinson, South Carolina; 
Humboldt Bay, California; 
Indian Point, New York; 
Joseph M. Farley, Alabama; 
Kewaunee, Wisconsin; 
La Crosse, Wisconsin; 
La Salle, Louisiana; 
Limerick, Pennsylvania; 
Maine Yankee, Maine; 
McGuire, North Carolina; 
Millstone, Connecticut; 
Monticello, Minnesota; 
Nine Mile Point& James A. FitzPatrick, New York; 
North Anna, Virginia; 
Oconee, South Carolina; 
Oyster Creek, New Jersey; 
Palo Verde, Arizona; 
Palisades, Michigan; 
Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania; 
Perry, Ohio; 
Pilgrim, Massachusetts; 
Point Beach, Wisconsin; 
Prairie Island, Minnesota; 
Quad Cities, Iowa; 
Rancho Seco, California; 
River Bend, Louisiana; 
Salem & Hope Creek, New Jersey; 
San Onofre, California; 
Seabrook, Maine; 
Sequoyah, Tennessee; 
Shearon Harris, North Carolina; 
South Texas Project, Texas; 
St. Lucie, Florida; 
Summer, South Carolina; 
Surry, Virginia; 
Susquehanna, Pennsylvania; 
Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania; 
Trojan, Washington; 
Turkey Point, Florida; 
Vermont Yankee, Vermont; 
Vogtle, Georgia; 
Waterford, Louisiana; 
Watts Bar, Tennessee; 
Wolf Creek, Kansas; 
Yankee Rowe, Vermont; 
Zion, Illinois. 

Source: DOE. 

Note: Locations are approximate. DOE has reported that it is 
responsible for managing nuclear waste at additional sites but these 
generally include research reactors that generate small amounts of 
waste that will be consolidated at the Idaho National Laboratory for 
packaging prior to disposal. 

[End of figure] 

In March 2009, however, the Secretary of Energy announced plans to 
terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program and instead study 
other options for nuclear waste management. The President's fiscal 
year 2011 budget proposed eliminating all funding for the program, 
including the DOE office that managed it, the Office of Civilian 
Radioactive Waste Management. The administration directed DOE to 
establish a Blue Ribbon Commission[Footnote 5] of recognized experts 
to study nuclear waste management alternatives. The commission is 
scheduled to issue a final report by January 2012. 

My testimony is based on three of our recently issued reports on the 
storage of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste,[Footnote 
6] updated with recent information from DOE, NRC, federal court 
proceedings, and the Blue Ribbon Commission's preliminary 
recommendations. It addresses (1) the status of the Yucca Mountain 
repository and national policy for nuclear waste disposal, (2) options 
for storing spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste and the 
key benefits and challenges of each option, and (3) the principal 
lessons learned from past nuclear waste management efforts and how 
these lessons might be applied to future efforts. A detailed 
description of our methodologies can be found in our published 
reports. We conducted this work in accordance with generally accepted 
government auditing standards. 


Spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste are considered some of 
the most hazardous substances on earth. Without protective shielding, 
the intense radioactivity can kill a person immediately or cause 
cancer for those who receive smaller doses. Nuclear waste can remain 
radioactively dangerous for tens of thousands of years. This waste is 
the result of both commercial and noncommercial activities. 

The majority of spent nuclear fuel is generated from commercial power 
plant operations. After the nuclear fuel is used, or "spent," and 
removed from the reactors, operators must actively manage the spent 
nuclear fuel by isolating and continually monitoring it to keep humans 
and the environment safe. Most spent nuclear fuel is stored at 
operating reactor sites, immersed in pools of water designed to cool 
it and isolate it from the environment. With no offsite storage or 
disposal option for the spent nuclear fuel, some of the racks in the 
pools holding spent nuclear fuel have been be rearranged to allow for 
more dense storage. Despite this re-racking, spent nuclear fuel pools 
in the United States are reaching their capacities. Even before the 
March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that resulted in the 
release of radiation from the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi 
Nuclear Power Station, concerns had been expressed about the 
possibility of an accident involving radiation release. The concerns 
were that an overcrowded spent nuclear fuel pool could release large 
amounts of radiation if an accident or other event caused the pool to 
lose water, potentially leading to a fire that could disperse 
radioactive material. As U.S. reactor operators have run out of space 
in their spent nuclear fuel pools, they have turned in increasing 
numbers to dry cask storage systems, which generally consist of 
stainless steel canisters placed inside larger stainless steel or 
concrete casks and stored outside the pools on concrete pads. Without 
a final disposition pathway, this commercial spent nuclear fuel 
generally remains where it was generated, including nine sites where 
the reactors have been decommissioned.[Footnote 7] 

In addition to spent nuclear fuel generated from commercial purposes, 
DOE manages an inventory of about 13,000 metric tons of spent nuclear 
fuel and high-level nuclear waste at five DOE sites. From 1944 until 
the 1980s, the United States used nuclear reactors to produce 
plutonium and other materials for nuclear weapons. As a result of 
these activities, after the shutdown of weapons production and of some 
reprocessing plants at the end of the Cold War, DOE retained an 
inventory of spent nuclear fuel that had not been reprocessed, as well 
as high-level nuclear waste--which is one of the byproducts of 
reprocessing. Weapons production and related defense activities--such 
as the reprocessing of the Navy's spent nuclear fuel to produce new 
fuel, which also created high-level nuclear waste--are the source of 
about 87 percent of DOE's inventory of spent nuclear fuel and almost 
its entire inventory of high-level waste. Because weapons production 
and reprocessing of the Navy's spent nuclear fuel have ended, DOE's 
inventories of this waste are largely fixed. 

DOE is also responsible for managing nuclear waste from a variety of 
other sources. For example, DOE is responsible for managing spent 
nuclear fuel from the Navy through the Naval Nuclear Propulsion 
Program, which is jointly operated by DOE and the Navy. The remainder 
of DOE's inventory of nuclear waste comes from various nondefense 
sources, including research activities and foreign research reactors. 
The United States operates a program to take custody of spent nuclear 
fuel from foreign research reactors, which supports a U.S. policy to 
prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons; this program is 
scheduled for completion in 2019. In general, DOE stores this waste at 
five sites: the Hanford Site in Washington state, the Savannah River 
Site in South Carolina, Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho, the Fort 
St. Vrain Site in Colorado, and the West Valley Site in New York. 
[Footnote 8] As with commercial sites, DOE currently stores spent 
nuclear fuel in either cooling ponds or dry cask storage. Much of the 
high-level nuclear waste is currently stored in liquid or semiliquid 
form in large underground tanks and requires further processing before 
it can be safely stored or disposed of. 

The Status of the Yucca Mountain Repository: 

Uncertainties exist about the direction of the nation's policy for 
nuclear waste disposal. Under NWPA, as amended, Yucca Mountain is the 
only site that DOE is to investigate for suitability as a permanent 
nuclear waste repository. DOE investigated Yucca Mountain; in 2002 
recommended the site to the President; and in 2008 submitted a license 
application to NRC. On March 3, 2010, however, DOE submitted a motion 
to NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to withdraw its application 
with prejudice, which DOE said would mean that the Yucca Mountain site 
would be excluded from further consideration as a repository. DOE did 
not cite technical or safety issues as the reason for its decision to 
withdraw the license application. In a May 2010 reply DOE filed before 
NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, the department explained that 
the Secretary's judgment is not that Yucca Mountain is unsafe or that 
there are flaws in the license application, but rather that Yucca 
Mountain is not a workable option and that alternatives will better 
serve the public interest. DOE stated that a key aspect of the problem 
was the continuing lack of public support for the repository among the 
people of the state of Nevada and that public acceptance is a key 
component of a workable solution to permanent disposal of nuclear 

On June 29, 2010, the licensing board denied DOE's motion, ruling that 
DOE was obligated under NWPA, as amended, to continue with the 
licensing effort. On June 30, 2010, the day after the Atomic Safety 
and Licensing Board denied DOE's motion to withdraw its license 
application with prejudice, the NRC commissioners issued an order 
inviting parties--including the state of Nevada, local counties, and 
industry--to file briefs addressing whether the commissioners should 
review the board's decision and, if so, whether they should uphold or 
reverse it. As of May 26, 2011, however, the commissioners have yet to 
announce whether they plan to review the board's decision. 

Separately, the states of South Carolina and Washington, Aiken County 
in South Carolina, and a private party have sued DOE and NRC, arguing 
that DOE had no authority to terminate the proposed Yucca Mountain 
repository. The U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of 
Columbia Circuit, which is hearing the lawsuits, initially decided to 
stay its proceedings until the NRC commissioners ruled on the board's 
decision but agreed to hear oral arguments on March 22, 2011. As of 
May 27, 2011, the court has not ruled on the case. The Atomic Safety 
and Licensing Board, with no further input from the NRC commissioners 
or federal courts, announced its intention to continue with its 
consideration of the challenges to the license application. In these 
proceedings, the board will consider approximately 300 contentions 
submitted by stakeholders questioning certain aspects of DOE's license 
application and related participant filings and evidence. It is not 
yet clear whether NRC or the court will rule that the license 
application review process should resume. 

Amid uncertainties about the status of the repository license, DOE 
took steps to shut down the Yucca Mountain program and the Office of 
Civilian Radioactive Waste Management by September 30, 2010, when 
funding would have ended under the President's budget proposal. 
Specifically, DOE eliminated the jobs of all federal employees working 
on the program, terminated program activities by contractors, and 
disposed of office and other equipment. DOE took steps to preserve 
scientific and other data, including data stored in the Licensing 
Support Network. The data in this network had been maintained and made 
accessible to others through the NRC Web site. The network facilitates 
the exchange of documents among the parties involved in the review 
process by making the parties' documents publicly accessible over the 
internet. However, NRC's Licensing Support Network Administrator 
stated that, under the administration's budget proposal for fiscal 
year 2012, the NRC's Licensing Support Network faces a shutdown on 
October 1, 2011, and would no longer be accessible by scientists and 
the public. In response, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board 
expressed concerns that the Licensing Support Network might no longer 
be available as it considers challenges to the license application. On 
April 11, 2011, the board ordered parties involved in the review 
process to preserve all the Licensing Support Network documents in 
"PDF" format and submit them to NRC by August 31, 2011, for inclusion 
in its publicly accessible database called the Agencywide Documents 
Access and Management System or ADAMS. On April 21, 2011, NRC filed a 
motion to the board that asked the board to reconsider its order due 
to the unanticipated expense. As of May 26, 2011, the board has not 
ruled on the motion. Separately, a DOE official stated that it had 
already planned to make its Licensing Support Network documents 
available to the public upon written request. 

In our April 2011 report,[Footnote 9] we raised concerns about DOE's 
lack of a formal approved plan to guide shutdown activities or assess 
related risks, given the uncertainty about whether DOE will be 
compelled by either NRC or the courts to resume the license 
application review process. Both federal internal control standards 
and DOE orders require that DOE sufficiently plan for major 
activities--including shutdowns--and assess the risks of these 
activities. DOE officials stated that they held frequent meetings and 
focus groups to help guide the shutdown. DOE's Inspector General, in a 
report, also expressed concern about the lack of a formal plan, given 
the scope and complexity of the shutdown and the possible effects on 
areas such as the preservation of intellectual, scientific, and 
technological information and on the disposition of property.[Footnote 
10] In addition, as we reported, the loss of staff with experience at 
Yucca Mountain could hinder the license review if the process is 
resumed. Furthermore, several DOE and NRC officials and industry 
representatives said that ending the license review process before 
allowing NRC to review the merits of the application represented a 
loss of potentially valuable information that might have been useful 
in the search and licensing of an alternate site. 

DOE plans to wait for the Blue Ribbon Commission's final 
recommendations, before deciding on a direction for future nuclear 
waste storage efforts. In the meantime, it is not clear whether or how 
the nation's nuclear waste policy will change. The commission has 
taken steps to identify alternatives to meet the nation's nuclear 
waste storage needs. After receiving input from numerous experts and 
sources, on May 13, 2011, at a public meeting, the commission 
subcommittees released draft recommendations for public comment. At 
this meeting, each of the three subcommittees--disposal, reactor and 
fuel cycle technology, and transportation and storage--presented 
preliminary recommendations from its draft report to the rest of the 
commission and the public. The disposal subcommittee's preliminary 
recommendation stated that geologic disposal is the most promising and 
technically accepted option available for safely isolating high-level 
nuclear wastes for very long periods of time and will be needed under 
all reasonably foreseeable scenarios, a recommendation that echoes a 
1957 National Academy of Sciences study. Until geologic disposal is 
available, the transportation and storage subcommittee's preliminary 
recommendation was to establish one or more centralized interim 
storage facilities. According to the commission's Web site, the 
subcommittees will now revisit their draft reports as necessary and 
will issue those draft reports for public comment by the end of May. 

Each Storage Option Offers Benefits but Poses Challenges, Including 
High Costs: 

The three primary nuclear waste storage and disposal options we have 
reported on--continued on-site storage, interim storage at a 
centralized facility, and permanent disposal in a geologic repository 
[Footnote 11]--offer benefits as well as challenges, including 
significant costs. Two of the options--which could be used in the 
interim before permanent disposal is available--provide the nation 
with additional time to seek approaches to nuclear waste management 
and disposal that might achieve broader acceptance than the Yucca 
Mountain permanent repository. NRC has stated that continued on-site 
storage is safe for up to 60 years beyond the life of a reactor, and 
at DOE sites storing spent nuclear fuel regulated by NRC. Interim 
storage in general comes with benefits and challenges. DOE has stated 
that recent advances in dry cask storage systems allow spent nuclear 
fuel to be stored above ground for as long as 300 years. Another 
benefit is that nuclear waste in continued on-site storage or interim 
centralized storage is more easily retrievable. Easy retrieval is 
important when considering approaches, such as reprocessing, a process 
that could eventually be used to recycle parts of the spent nuclear 
fuel for further power production. An important challenge, however, is 
that interim storage is not a permanent solution and would require 
active controls, such as continued monitoring and security measures to 
prevent human and environmental exposure. In addition, nuclear waste 
in interim storage may need to be repackaged after 100 years, at a 
cost of $180 million to $500 million.[Footnote 12] Furthermore, 
interim storage, if used for a long time period, would pass 
responsibility for a permanent solution to future generations, who may 
not be willing or able to either maintain the interim storage 
facilities or to develop and implement some permanent waste management 

Continued on-site storage. We have reported on the following benefits 
of continued on-site storage: 

* Requires minimal near-term effort. Continued on-site storage is the 
de facto approach for managing nuclear waste. 

* Reduces transportation risks. The waste will only have to be 
transported once, to a final disposal site, and it will become cooler 
and less radioactive over time. 

Continued on-site storage also presents challenges, including the 

* The continued on-site storage option, assuming geologic disposal in 
100 years, would cost from $20 billion to $97 billion.[Footnote 13] It 
would also result in costs to the federal government such as: 

* exposure to liabilities resulting from lawsuits against DOE, which 
committed to take custody of commercial nuclear waste in 1998, as 
required by NWPA, as amended. The federal government has paid $956 
million through the Department of Treasury's judgment fund, and DOE 
estimates future liability to be about $15.4 billion through 2020, 
plus $500 million every year after that.[Footnote 14] 

* potential penalties of $75,000 per day, or about $27.4 million per 
year if DOE and the Navy fail to meet commitments to remove their 
spent nuclear fuel from DOE-sites in Idaho and Colorado by January 1, 

* DOE will likely incur costs of $918 million to maintain storage at 
DOE sites if its waste remained there through 2040, and another $300 
million for additional storage at the Hanford Site.[Footnote 15] 

* likely repackaging of spent nuclear fuel if it is stored in dry-
casks for over 100 years, at a potential cost of $180 million to $500 
million.[Footnote 16] 

* it could contribute to community opposition to license extensions of 
currently operating reactors or license applications for new reactors. 

* It could raise national security concerns, according to Navy 
officials, if Idaho can suspend further shipments of Navy spent 
nuclear fuel to DOE's Idaho site until the agreement with the state 
for removal of such fuel is met, because the Navy depends on this site 
as part of the process of refueling its nuclear warships. 

Interim storage at a centralized facility. Potential benefits of 
centralized interim storage include the following: 

* Nuclear waste from decommissioned reactors could be consolidated, 
decreasing the complexity of monitoring and securing the waste and 
freeing the land for other uses. 

* DOE could fulfill its obligation to take custody of spent nuclear 
fuel until a long-term strategy is implemented, thus avoiding 
additional liabilities as the result of lawsuits. 

* Reactor operators may choose to thin out spent nuclear fuel 
assemblies from densely packed pools, which could reduce risk and may 
save reactor operators the cost of building dry storage cask systems 
at each reactor location. 

Centralized interim storage also poses challenges, including the 

* Interim storage could take years to site and construct. We have 
reported that a federal centralized storage option with two locations, 
assuming geologic disposal in 100 years, would take about 19 years to 
implement and would cost from $23 billion to $81 billion, although 
private industry could likely develop centralized interim storage in 
less time and for less cost.[Footnote 17] 

* Provisions in NWPA, as amended, that would allow DOE to arrange for 
centralized storage have either expired or are unusable because they 
are tied to milestones in repository development that have not been 
met.[Footnote 18] 

* A centralized storage facility will likely face intense state or 
local opposition, particularly if there is no final disposition 
pathway or other benefits that would accompany it. Even if a local 
community supported a centralized storage facility, a state may not. 

* Any nuclear waste stored at a centralized site could create 
increased safety concerns because it would have to be transported 
twice--once to the centralized site and from there to a repository. 

Permanent disposal in a geologic repository. Experts generally agree 
that, based on current technology, the only safe and secure permanent 
solution for nuclear waste is disposal in a geologic repository. We 
drew this conclusion in our November 2009 report, as did the National 
Research Council in 2001 and the Blue Ribbon Commission in 2011 in 
their respective publications. Other permanent disposal options--such 
as narrow shafts bored deep into the ground--could be feasible, but 
face cost or technical constraints. Technologies are available that 
could reduce the radioactivity or volume of spent nuclear fuel--
namely, reprocessing and advanced reactors--but they do not eliminate 
the need for a geologic repository. The National Research Council of 
the National Academies reported that developing other alternatives is 
not likely for the foreseeable future. 

Key challenges to a geologic repository are the cost and time required 
to site and build it and the need to gain public acceptance for the 
project. The nation has already spent nearly $15 billion on developing 
a repository and, as we reported in November 2009, completing, 
operating, and closing the Yucca Mountain repository would likely have 
cost between $41 billion and $67 billion more. If the nation halts the 
effort at Yucca Mountain, it will need to restart the search for an 
alternate repository or other solution and, based on past experience, 
this could take decades, cost billions of dollars, and face public 
opposition. Although some past efforts have had local community 
support, they have also faced public opposition, including Yucca 

Principal Lessons Learned That Could Facilitate Future Nuclear Waste 
Storage or Disposal Efforts: 

Our review of reports and interviews with DOE and NRC officials and 
representatives of various national associations, local and state 
governments, and community organizations, suggest two broad lessons 
for future waste storage or disposal efforts. First, overcoming social 
and political opposition and gaining public acceptance is crucial, and 
the federal government has several tools for doing so. One important 
tool is cooperation with key stakeholders, as we reported[Footnote 19] 
and the Blue Ribbon Commission stated in its most recent public 
meeting, on May 13, 2011. Specifically, in our April 2011 report, we 
cited the need for the federal government to involve stakeholders but 
also to be transparent and cooperative. Similarly, in its preliminary 
recommendations for public comment, the Blue Ribbon Commission stated 
that all affected levels of government must have, at a minimum, a 
meaningful consultative role in important decisions. As state 
government officials told us, if local communities or states feel that 
the federal government is not willing to address their concerns in a 
transparent way, they will be less inclined to work cooperatively with 
the federal government. Another important factor is allowing states to 
have an oversight role. One reason for the success of the Waste 
Isolation Pilot Plant--a permanent repository for transuranic 
waste[Footnote 20] in New Mexico--was that DOE conceded some of its 
authority to the state and worked collaboratively with state 
officials. States are important partly because they have broader 
constituencies than local communities and are more likely to raise 
objections. Other considerations for overcoming social and political 
opposition include long-term incentives and education. Substantial, 
long-term federal investments in the host community and state can help 
win support by keeping key parties committed to a repository over the 
several decades of development. Education has also helped foster 
public acceptance. For example, DOE's contractor at the Waste 
Isolation Pilot Plant gained public acceptance through education and 
training programs on the safe transportation of radioactive waste. One 
important aspect of education has been to dispel the inaccurate 
perception that nuclear waste poses risks comparable to nuclear 

A second broad lesson is that, in developing storage or disposal 
options, it is important to have consistent policy, funding, and 
leadership, since any such effort will take decades. We reported in 
April 2011 that policies must be credible and consistent to be 
effectively implemented and that inconsistent policies may contribute 
to public opposition.[Footnote 21] Stakeholders told us that the 
siting process and safety standards changed over time at both the 
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and Yucca Mountain, contributing to public 
opposition. Similarly, a program should also have consistent funding. 
The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management budget was not 
predictable and varied by as much as 20 percent from year to year, 
with an average annual shortfall of appropriations from its budget 
requests of about $90 million each year. Stakeholders, including 
former DOE officials, told us that this made long-term planning 
difficult. Finally, continuity in leadership can help address societal 
and public opposition to a repository. In contrast, the Office of 
Civilian Radioactive Waste Management operated with a revolving-door 
style of management; it had 17 directors over 27 years, hurting 
relationships with local and state governments. Just as important, 
according to some former DOE officials and industry representatives, 
the program was not always a high priority and the quality of managers 
running the program varied. Some stakeholders said this illustrated a 
lack of commitment and undermined public trust. 

Because the nation has not resolved how to manage spent nuclear fuel 
and high-level waste and because any future endeavor is likely to take 
decades and cost billions of dollars more, in our April 2011 report we 
raised matters Congress may wish to consider to improve the success of 
future nuclear waste disposal efforts. Specifically, Congress may wish 
to consider whether a more predictable funding mechanism and an 
independent organization, outside of DOE, may be more effective in 
developing a permanent solution to nuclear waste management. In 
addition, because DOE shut down the Yucca Mountain repository without 
planning for continuing work on it, should it be compelled to do so, 
we recommended that the Secretary of Energy assess the risks of 
shutting down the repository and develop a preliminary plan for 
restarting work on it. In addition, because DOE had not planned for 
long-term storage, in our March 2011 report on DOE-managed waste, we 
recommended that DOE assess the condition of existing nuclear waste 
storage facilities and identify any gaps and actions that might be 
needed to address long-term storage requirements. 

Chairman Shimkus, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be 
pleased to answer any questions that you, Ranking Member Green, or 
other Members of the Subcommittee may have at this time. 

GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments: 

For further information about this testimony, please contact Mark 
Gaffigan at (202) 512-3841 or Contact points for 
our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found 
on the last page of this statement. Janet Frisch, Assistant Director, 
and Gene Aloise, Kevin Bray, Terry Hanford, Cristian Ion, Mehrzad 
Nadji, Robert Sanchez, Ben Shouse, and Kiki Theodoropoulos made key 
contributions to this statement. 

[End of section] 


[1] The majority of this nuclear waste is expected to be spent nuclear 
fuel from commercial operators. An estimated 13,000 metric tons of 
this waste, however, is managed by DOE at five of its sites. Existing 
nuclear waste already exceeds the 70,000 metric ton capacity of the 
proposed Yucca Mountain repository. 

[2] According to NRC, a geological repository is an excavated, 
underground facility that is designed, constructed and operated for 
safe and secure permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste. 

[3] All costs are in constant 2010 dollars, unless otherwise noted. 
Numbers taken from our 2009 report on Yucca Mountain and potential 
alternatives were estimated in 2009 constant dollars and are reported 
with no further change. See GAO, Nuclear Waste Management: Key 
Attributes, Challenges, and Costs for the Yucca Mountain Repository 
and Two Potential Alternatives, [hyperlink,] (Washington, D.C.: Nov. 4, 

[4] NRC has regulatory authority to authorize the construction of a 
repository as well as its operations and closure. 

[5] The President directed the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission 
on America's Nuclear Future in January 2010. 

[6] GAO, Commercial Nuclear Waste: Effects of a Termination of the 
Yucca Mountain Repository Program and Lessons Learned, [hyperlink,] (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 8, 
2011); DOE Nuclear Waste: Better Information Needed on Waste Storage 
at DOE Sites as a Result of Yucca Mountain Shutdown, [hyperlink,] (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 23, 
2011); [hyperlink,]. 

[7] Not only is DOE responsible for spent nuclear fuel and high-level 
waste, but also so-called greater than class C nuclear waste. The 
nation generates greater than class C nuclear waste from the 
maintenance and decommissioning of nuclear power plants, from 
radioactive materials that were once used for food irradiation or for 
medical purposes, and from miscellaneous radioactive waste, such as 
contaminated equipment from industrial research and development. DOE 
is required to dispose of this nuclear waste. 

[8] DOE has reported that it is responsible for managing nuclear waste 
at additional sites but these generally include research reactors that 
generate small amounts of waste that will be consolidated at the Idaho 
National Laboratory for packaging prior to disposal. 

[9] [hyperlink,]. 

[10] DOE Office of Inspector General, Special Report: Need for 
Enhanced Surveillance During the Yucca Mountain Project Shut Down, OAS-
SR-10-01 (Washington, D.C.: July 2010). 

[11] [hyperlink,]. 

[12] [hyperlink,]. 

[13] [hyperlink,]. 

[14] All liability and penalty values are in current dollars. Not all 
of the lawsuits have been resolved. Also, the Department of Justice 
has already incurred over $168 million through fiscal year 2010 to 
defend DOE in litigation. With ongoing litigation, these costs will 

[15] [hyperlink,]. The costs we 
previously reported include earlier estimates of these costs. 

[16] [hyperlink,]. We also 
previously reported estimates of these costs in a 500-year projection 
in [hyperlink,]. 

[17] [hyperlink,]. 

[18] DOE acknowledged that the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended, 
does provide the authority for DOE to accept and store spent nuclear 
fuel under certain circumstances, and DOE has done so in the past, 
such as U.S.-supplied spent nuclear fuel from foreign reactors, as 
well as damaged and spent nuclear fuel from the Three Mile Island 
reactor site. However, DOE asserts that NWPA's detailed statutory 
scheme limits its authority to accept spent nuclear fuel under Atomic 
Energy Act authority except in compelling circumstances, such as an 
emergency involving spent nuclear fuel threatening public health. 

[19] [hyperlink,]. 

[20] The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant was designed to accept 
transuranic waste, not spent nuclear fuel. Generally, transuranic 
waste consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil, and 
other items contaminated with radioactive elements heavier than 
uranium, mostly plutonium, as a result of work related to the defense 

[21] [hyperlink,]. 

[End of section] 

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