Federal Facilities for Storing Spent Nuclear Fuel--Are They Needed?

EMD-79-82: Published: Jun 27, 1979. Publicly Released: Jun 27, 1979.

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The domestic and foreign aspects of the spent-fuel program of the Department of Energy (DOE) were reviewed. In the past, partially used fuel loads were taken from the nuclear reactor and transferred to a commercially-operated reprocessing plant, where residual uranium and plutonium in the spent fuel could be removed for use again in other nuclear reactors. In order to minimize the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the President in 1977 decided to defer indefinitely the commercialization of technologies that process the recycling of plutonium. DOE intended to take title to the spent nuclear fuel accumulating at reactor sites in the United States and abroad. DOE realized that a centralized interim storage facility must be provided, since many utilities would not be able to store their spent fuel on-site beginning in 1983. Alternatives being considered by DOE for a Federal interim storage facility include: construction of a new 5,000-metric-ton facility to be located on a Federally owned site; purchase of storage pools at three existing but closed reprocessing plants; and lease of storage space from the Tennessee Valley Authority. Depending on which of these is selected, DOE then would calculate a storage fee to recover all Government costs for both interim and permanent storage of spent fuel.

There is concern about the safety of spent fuel transportation to interim storage facilities. GAO does not believe that DOE has fully explored the nuclear industry's potential to provide away-from-reactor spent-fuel storage facilities. DOE does not recognize that the nuclear industry has the technical capability and should have the motivation to provide interim spent-fuel storage services. On the other hand, estimates by DOE of needed foreign storage capacity are speculative. Also, DOE should not unilaterally decide on a foreign spent-fuel storage policy until the completion of the International Fuel Cycle Evaluation Study.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

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

    Recommendation: Because the GAO analysis shows that a Federal interim spent-fuel storage facility is not needed, it is recommended that the Secretary of DOE should: establish a timetable for having a method for permanent spent-fuel storage; include in that timetable provisions for consideration by the President as to whether commercial spent-fuel reprocessing should resume; work with and explore ways that utilities can solve their spent-fuel storage problems until a method of permanent storage is available; and encourage and work with the private industry to provide any needed interim spent-fuel storage facilities. Federal interim storage facilities should only be considered if DOE cannot meet the date that it commits to having a permanent storage alternative available. To resolve any uncertainty about the rights of utilities and other authorized groups to transport spent fuel through interstate commerce, the Secretary of Transportation should include in any routing regulation for transportation of radioactive materials, specific language to make clear the extent and scope of the authority of the States to regulate, but not prohibit, the movement of spent fuel.

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