The Nation's Nuclear Waste--Proposals for Organization and Siting

EMD-79-77: Published: Jun 21, 1979. Publicly Released: Jun 28, 1979.

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Over the last 30 years, the Federal Government has generated vast quantities of highly radioactive contaminated waste. Spent fuel from commercial reactors has also accumulated. Both are characterized by high levels of radiation and a long toxic life. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Energy (DOE) have major responsibilities for managing and disposing of these wastes. Several attempts by the DOE and its predecessor agencies to permanently dispose of nuclear waste in deep underground repositories have failed because of public and political opposition, rather than technical reasons. The Federal Government has never articulated a firm policy on how it intends to manage nuclear waste over the long term, and consequently there has never been a clearly defined, technically feasible waste management plan.

A task force established by the President has made some recommendations which highlight the significant problems and are a step in the right direction. A defensible master plan for long-term development and implementation, and an organizational concept which will provide for public participation are still needed and are critical to a technically feasible and broadly accepted program. If State approval for repository sites cannot be obtained within an established time, the Federal Government might have to mandate selections if the waste problem is to be solved within a reasonable time. Any entity which may assume responsibility for site selection should give first consideration to determining if any of the existing reservations are acceptable for waste disposal. If they are not acceptable for storing nuclear wastes that would be shipped there from other locations, then these sites should not be acceptable for the long-term storage of wastes already there.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Matter: The Congress should enact legislation which will create a Federal and State committee and place responsibility for developing a national waste management plan in that committee. While Senate bill 742 would establish such a committee, GAO believes that this or any other bill considered must recognize that if the concept does not lead to the selection of waste repository sites within an established time, the Federal government would exercise its right to mandate selections.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should determine, unless and until its reponsibility in this area is assigned to another organization, how it is going to deal with the highly contaminated DOE reservations and whether they are acceptable as nuclear waste repositories before selecting any other sites.

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