Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management:

Approaches Used by Foreign Countries May Provide Useful Lessons for Managing U.S. Radioactive Waste

GAO-07-221: Published: Mar 21, 2007. Publicly Released: Mar 21, 2007.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Eugene E. Aloise
(202) 512-6870
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

GAO has reported on limitations in the management of U.S. low-level radioactive waste (LLRW). LLRW ranges from very low-activity to higher-activity waste. To identify potential approaches to overcome these limitations, GAO was asked to examine the extent to which other countries have (1) LLRW inventory databases, (2) timely removal of higher-activity LLRW from waste generator sites, (3) disposition options for all LLRW, and (4) requirements that LLRW generators have financial reserves to cover waste disposition costs, as well as any other approaches that might improve U.S. LLRW management. GAO primarily relied on a survey of 18 countries representing leading LLRW generators to identify their management approaches and to compare them with U.S. survey results and with approaches suggested by LLRW generators, disposal operators, and regulators in the United States.

Academic, industrial, medical, utility, and government entities in the United States, particularly the Department of Energy (DOE), disposed of at least 15 million cubic feet of LLRW in 2005. This waste includes debris, rubble, soils, paper, liquid, metals, and clothing that have been exposed to radioactivity or contaminated with radioactive material, and sealed radiological sources that are no longer useful for industrial or other applications (disused). Other countries that have nuclear reactor units and use radioactive materials in other ways manage the residual LLRW in some ways that are different than in the United States. Of the countries surveyed, GAO found that most countries indicated they have national radioactive waste inventory databases that include information on all waste generators, waste types, storage locations, and disused sealed radiological sources, and that they use them to forecast future disposal capacity needs. Most countries indicated they facilitate the timely removal of higher-activity LLRW, essentially disused sealed radiological sources, from generator sites to enhance safety and security, including requiring the return of a disused source to a source supplier. Most countries indicated they have disposal options for lower-activity LLRW, central storage options for higher-activity LLRW, and alternative disposal options for very low-level radioactive waste that in most cases does not require an exemption review by a nuclear regulatory authority. Half the countries indicated they impose financial assurance requirements on all waste generators to cover disposition costs, and most of these countries also use other approaches to reduce government costs to recover higher-activity LLRW, such as requiring a disposal fee at the time that a sealed radiological source is purchased. GAO also found that most countries surveyed use national radioactive waste plans to guide the management of their radioactive wastes. Many representatives from LLRW generators, disposal operators, regulators, and others told GAO that the application of similar approaches to those used by other countries might improve the management of U.S. radioactive waste.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In order to improve the management of LLRW in the United States and address a potential shortfall of disposal availability for higher-activity LLRW in 2008 and other management concerns, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Secretary of Energy should evaluate and report back to the Congress within one year on the usefulness to the United States of developing a U.S. radioactive waste management plan, and the potential costs, steps, and any authorities necessary to develop such a plan, if deemed appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2008, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a report that included an analysis of both of these recommendations. In developing its response, the NRC staff coordinated with DOE staff on portions of the report that address DOE responsibilities related to commercial LLRW. NRC staff incorporated DOE suggestions on these areas into the report. In summary, the report found that 2 of 5 foreign approaches--waste management plans and waste inventories--would be of limited use in the U.S. The report also noted that the other approaches are either used in the U.S. already or are currently being formally evaluated.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the management of LLRW in the United States and address a potential shortfall of disposal availability for higher-activity LLRW in 2008 and other management concerns, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Secretary of Energy should evaluate and report back to the Congress within one year on the usefulness to the United States of adopting the LLRW management approaches used in the countries discussed in this report, and the steps and any authorities necessary for their implementation, if deemed appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2008, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a report that included an analysis of both of these recommendations. In developing its response, the NRC staff coordinated with DOE staff on portions of the report that address DOE responsibilities related to commercial LLRW. NRC staff incorporated DOE suggestions on these areas into the report. In summary, the report found that 2 of 5 foreign approaches--waste management plans and waste inventories--would be of limited use in the U.S. The report also noted that the other approaches are either used in the U.S. already or are currently being formally evaluated.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the management of LLRW in the United States and address a potential shortfall of disposal availability for higher-activity LLRW in 2008 and other management concerns, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Secretary of Energy should evaluate and report back to the Congress within one year on the usefulness to the United States of adopting the LLRW management approaches used in the countries discussed in this report, and the steps and any authorities necessary for their implementation, if deemed appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE accepted GAO's recommendation for continued evaluation of international nuclear waste disposal practices, but it disagreed with the need to specifically report to Congress. Rather than issuing a report to Congress, DOE explained that it would be pleased to discuss the waste management approaches surveyed by GAO rather than expend resources needed for cleanup efforts to produce a final report. However, in a report to Congress dated March 28, 2008, the NRC provided an assessment to both of our report recommendations. In developing its response, the NRC staff coordinated with DOE staff on portions of the report that address DOE responsibilities related to commercial LLRW. NRC staff incorporated DOE suggestions on these areas into the report.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the management of LLRW in the United States and address a potential shortfall of disposal availability for higher-activity LLRW in 2008 and other management concerns, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Secretary of Energy should evaluate and report back to the Congress within one year on the usefulness to the United States of developing a U.S. radioactive waste management plan, and the potential costs, steps, and any authorities necessary to develop such a plan, if deemed appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE accepted GAO's recommendation for continued evaluation of international nuclear waste disposal practices, but it disagreed with the need to specifically report to Congress. Rather than issuing a report to Congress, DOE explained that it would be pleased to discuss the waste management approaches surveyed by GAO rather than expend resources needed for cleanup efforts to produce a final report. However, in a report to Congress dated March 28, 2008, the NRC provided an assessment to both of our report recommendations. In developing its response, the NRC staff coordinated with DOE staff on portions of the report that address DOE responsibilities related to commercial LLRW. NRC staff incorporated DOE suggestions on these areas into the report.

    Aug 11, 2014

    Jul 17, 2014

    Jul 11, 2014

    Jun 23, 2014

    Jun 9, 2014

    Jun 5, 2014

    May 30, 2014

    May 16, 2014

    May 15, 2014

    May 7, 2014

    Looking for more? Browse all our products here