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Disposal of High-Level Nuclear Waste

The nation's decades of commercial nuclear power production and nuclear weapons production have resulted in growing inventories of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level nuclear waste. This highly radioactive waste is currently stored at sites in 35 states because no repository has been developed for the permanent disposal of this waste.

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Commercial nuclear power production in the U.S. has resulted in over 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel—fuel that is used and removed from nuclear reactors—and the inventory is increasing by about 2,200 metric tons per year. If spent nuclear fuel assemblies were stacked side by side, they would fill a football field over 17 meters deep. In addition, nuclear weapons production and other defense-related activities have resulted in about 13,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level nuclear waste. This high-level waste is extremely radioactive and needs to be isolated and shielded to protect human health and the environment. It is currently being stored primarily at sites where it was generated. After spending decades and billions of dollars to research potential sites for a permanent disposal site, including at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, the nation remains without a repository for disposal and future prospects are unclear.

Figure 1: Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Sites

Figure: Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Sites

Source: GAO-12-797

Two federal agencies—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Energy (DOE)—are primarily responsible for the regulation and disposal of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. NRC regulates the construction and operation of commercial nuclear power plants and spent fuel disposal facilities, as well as the storage and transportation of spent fuel. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended in 1987, directed DOE to investigate Yucca Mountain as the site for a federal geologic disposal site for spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste from commercial nuclear power plants and some defense activities. DOE terminated its efforts to license a repository at Yucca Mountain in 2010, noting that there were better solutions that could achieve a broader national consensus. Shortly thereafter, NRC also terminated its licensing activities, but resumed its license review in August 2013 under an order issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Using available funding, NRC completed its technical review in January 2015 and generally found that DOE’s license application for Yucca Mountain satisfies nearly all of NRC’s regulations. Under a separate process, NRC must adjudicate challenges submitted by parties admitted to the licensing process, such as the state of Nevada, various counties, Indian Tribes, and industry, which may take several more years.

After terminating its work on Yucca Mountain, DOE proposed in January 2013 that a new waste management organization should be created and, using a phased, adaptive, consent-based approach, should site, license, construct and operate a pilot interim storage facility for spent fuel by 2021, a full-scale interim storage facility by 2025, and a permanent disposal facility by 2048.
Selecting and developing sites for interim storage and permanent disposal and moving the waste to those sites will be challenging for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • The creation of a new waste management organization and beginning work to site, license, construct, and operate interim storage sites and a new disposal site will require authorization from Congress and the development of implementing regulations.
  • Researching, planning, and constructing a permanent disposal facility is a costly and complex project which could take from 15 to 40 years before a facility is ready to begin accepting spent fuel and, once the facility is available, it will take several more decades to ship spent fuel to it. Shipping spent fuel to interim storage sites is no less complex than to a disposal facility and could result in shipping the spent fuel twice—first to the interim storage facility and second to the permanent facility. In both interim storage and permanent disposal scenarios, the shipping campaign is likely to take decades.
  • Prolonging interim storage of spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites could have financial and other impacts. For example, the federal government bears part of the storage costs as a result of industry lawsuits over DOE’s failure to take custody of commercial spent nuclear fuel in 1998, as required. In November 2014, DOE reported that the federal government has paid industry about $4.5 billion in damages and has projected future liabilities at about $22.6 billion.
  • Social and political opposition to interim storage and permanent disposal sites, not technical issues, is the key obstacle to selecting a site and building a facility. States are likely to be leery of hosting interim storage sites until a permanent disposal facility has been sited. Important tools for overcoming such opposition include transparency, economic incentives, and education.
  • A successful waste management strategy will need consistent policy, funding, and leadership, especially since the process will likely take decades. Some federal and other stakeholders suggested that a more predictable funding mechanism and an independent organization may be better suited than DOE to overseeing nuclear waste management.

Figure 2: Process and Costs of Transferring Spent Nuclear fuel from Wet to Dry Storage

Figure: Process and Costs of Transferring Spent Nuclear fuel from Wet to Dry Storage

Source: GAO analysis of Nuclear Energy Institute data : GAO-15-141

1. Nuclear power reactor and spent nuclear fuel pools

Nuclear power reactor and spent nuclear fuel pools— Spent nuclear fuel typically cools for at least 5 years in a pool before a canister ($700,000 to $1.5 million) is placed in the pool, filled with spent nuclear fuel, removed from the pool, and dried. A reusable steel transfer cask ($1.5 million to $3 million) provides shielding for nearby workers as the spent nuclear fuel is transferred from the pool and placed into either a vertical or horizontal dry storage system. The process of transferring spent nuclear fuel, excluding the canister, transfer cask, and storage system costs $150,000 to $550,000. Then the canister is placed into either a vertical or horizontal dry storage system.


Transporter— For vertical storage, a crawler-type transporter ($1 million to $1.5 million) carries the entire canister and storage cask in a vertical orientation to a storage pad. For horizontal storage, a tractor with a transfer trailer carries the canister in a reusable transfer cask in a horizontal orientation ($1.5 million to $3 million) to the horizontal module.

3. Vertical storage cask/horizontal storage module

Vertical storage cask/horizontal storage module—Utilities typically choose either a vertical storage system ($250,000 to $350,000 per cask) or a horizontal storage system ($500,000 to $600,000 per module) for a particular site.

4. Safety and security systems and annual operations

Safety and security systems and annual operations—Design, licensing, and construction of the dry storage facility and safety and security systems ($5.5 million to $42 million). Annual operations include costs of security, operations, and maintenance cost. Annual operations at an operating reactor site: $100,000 to $300,000 and at a shutdown reactor site: $2.5 million to $6.5 million.

Source: GAO analysis of Nuclear Energy Institute data. | GAO-15-141.

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