Key Issues > Disposal of High-Level Nuclear Waste
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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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The United States has over 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste that requires disposal. The U.S. commercial power industry alone has generated more waste (nuclear fuel that is "spent" and is no longer efficient at generating power) than any other country—nearly 80,000 metric tons. This spent nuclear fuel, which can pose serious risks to humans and the environment, is enough to fill a football field about 20 meters deep. The U.S. government’s nuclear weapons program has generated spent nuclear fuel as well as high-level radioactive waste and accounts for most of the rest of the total at about 14,000 metric tons, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). For the most part, this waste is stored where it was generated—at 80 sites in 35 states. The amount of waste is expected to increase to about 140,000 metric tons over the next several decades. However, there is still no disposal site in the United States. After spending decades and billions of dollars to research potential sites for a permanent disposal site, including at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada that has a license application pending to authorize construction of a nuclear waste repository, the future prospects for permanent disposal remain unclear.

Current Storage Sites for High-Level Radioactive Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel and Repository with License under Review

Current Storage Sites for High-Level Radioactive Waste and Repository with License under Review

Two federal agencies—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and DOE—are primarily responsible for the regulation and disposal of the nation's spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 directed DOE to investigate candidate sites for disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. It also directed the President to consider whether a separate disposal facility would be required for the defense-related nuclear waste. Since then, several decisions have affected U.S. disposal plans.

  • In 1985, President Reagan found that there was no basis to conclude that a separate defense—only waste repository was required. A DOE evaluation concluded that cost efficiency favored a commingled repository.
  • In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, directing DOE to investigate only Yucca Mountain for a national repository.
  • In 2008, DOE submitted a license application to NRC for authorization to construct a permanent geological repository at Yucca Mountain.
  • In 2010, DOE terminated its licensing efforts at Yucca Mountain, stating that a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain is not a workable option.
  • In 2013, DOE announced a new strategy for disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. This included temporarily storing waste at centralized locations and then commingling commercial and defense waste in a single repository—to be operational by 2048—at a site other than Yucca Mountain. DOE recommended creating a separate waste management organization to use a phased, adaptive, consent-based approach to siting and developing the new repository.
  • Also in 2013, in response to a lawsuit brought against NRC for suspending its license review in 2011, a federal appeals court ordered NRC to resume the Yucca Mountain licensing process.
  • In 2015, having used available funding, NRC reported that DOE’s license application for Yucca Mountain generally satisfied nearly all of NRC’s regulations. NRC must still review and rule on challenges submitted by parties admitted to the licensing process, but this effort could take several years and cost NRC an additional $330 million, according to NRC.
  • In 2015, President Obama found that a separate repository for defense-related radioactive waste was required. DOE reported that defense waste is smaller in volume, less radioactive, and thermally cooler than commercial spent nuclear fuel, stating that a defense repository may be easier to develop. After the finding, DOE announced plans to build two repositories, one for most of the nation’s defense-related radioactive waste and another for commercial spent nuclear fuel and residual defense waste.
  • In 2016, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 denied funds for a defense-only repository.
  • In 2017, President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget request included $120 million for the resumption of the license review for the repository at Yucca Mountain and for interim storage of nuclear waste.

Since DOE terminated its licensing efforts at Yucca Mountain in 2010, there has been no consensus between the Administration and the Congress on a path forward for managing commercial or defense nuclear waste. Resuming the licensing review for the Yucca Mountain repository and selecting and developing one or more sites for temporary storage will be challenging for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • Social and political opposition. This is the key obstacle—not technical issues—to selecting and building a facility. Important tools for overcoming this debate include transparency, economic incentives, and education.
  • Policy, funding, and leadership: A successful waste management strategy will need consistent policy, funding, and leadership, especially since any strategy will take decades to implement. Also, simultaneously siting and developing one or more interim storage sites and resuming the license review for Yucca Mountain may be challenging in a resource constrained environment. DOE has not developed detailed cost estimates for siting one or more interim storage sites or completing the licensing review for a repository at Yucca Mountain, DOE officials and other stakeholders, including representatives of states and communities, have suggested that a more predictable funding mechanism and an independent organization may be better suited than DOE to overseeing radioactive waste management.
  • Organizational capacity: The organizational capacity that DOE dismantled in 2010 would have to be rebuilt, which would include staffing it with the necessary legal, scientific, or other experts needed to resume licensing Yucca Mountain and siting and developing one or more interim storage sites. NRC would need to make key decisions on steps needed to resume the Yucca Mountain license review process, which could affect the amount of time it might take to determine whether to authorize construction of the Yucca Mountain repository.
  • Authorization: The Administration would require new legislative authority for interim storage because provisions in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that authorized interim storage have either expired or are unusable because they were tied to milestones in the development of a repository at Yucca Mountain that have not been met.
  • Transportation: Transporting radioactive waste to interim storage sites is no less complex than shipping to a disposal facility and could result in shipping the waste twice—first to the interim storage facility and then to the permanent facility. In both interim storage and permanent disposal scenarios, the shipping campaign is likely to take decades, which could result in overlap of operations.
  • Federal government storage costs: Delays in taking custody of commercial spent nuclear fuel for interim storage or disposal add to federal government liabilities. Specifically, 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 by contracts entered into under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. DOE reported at the end of fiscal year 2016 that the federal government has paid industry about 6.1 billion in damages and has projected future liabilities at about $24.7 billion. Each year of delay adds about $500 million to federal liabilities.
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  • portrait of Frank Rusco
    • Frank Rusco
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
    • ruscof@gao.gov
    • (202) 512-4597