Nuclear and Coal Waste Disposal Hampered by Legal, Regulatory, and Technical Uncertainties

EMD-82-63: Published: May 4, 1982. Publicly Released: Jun 3, 1982.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO compared the problems and uncertainties of nuclear and coal fuel cycle waste disposal. The issues involved the determination of the problems, progress, and status of disposal efforts for each nuclear and coal waste type primarily produced by electric generation. These issues included: (1) problems associated with waste collection and disposal; (2) present technical capability of waste collection and disposal; (3) present capability of the transportation system to transport the wastes; (4) comparative costs of waste disposal; (5) legal, regulatory, or institutional uncertainties affecting waste disposal; and (6) current status, progress, and problems of programs aimed at resolving these issues.

Numerous legal, regulatory, and technical problems and uncertainties hamper disposal of nuclear and coal fuel cycle wastes. Available information indicates that coal waste disposal costs are higher than nuclear waste disposal costs. However, accurate costs are not readily available for the nuclear fuel cycle, because some nuclear wastes have never been disposed of. For the five basic types of wastes produced by the nuclear fuel cycle, GAO found that: (1) low-level waste disposal is hindered by inadequate disposal capacity, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not issued disposal standards; (2) uranium mill tailings disposal is being delayed and will cost more because EPA has not issued final disposal standards; (3) spent fuel and high-level waste disposal plans are making little progress because of doubts as to whether spent fuel should be reprocessed or disposed of as waste, difficulties in finding disposal sites, and problems in transporting these wastes through certain states; and (4) transuranic waste disposal could become a future problem because more is expected to be produced. For the three forms of waste produced by coal electric generation, GAO found that: (1) gaseous wastes contribute to air quality problems and are suspected of causing other environmental concerns which in the future could place more acute restrictions on new and existing coal-fired plants; and (2) solid and liquid wastes currently present few regulatory problems or concerns but, if solid coal wastes are classified as hazardous, utilities will face increased disposal problems.

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