Nuclear Waste:

Operation of Monitored Retrievable Storage Facility Is Unlikely by 1998

RCED-91-194: Published: Sep 24, 1991. Publicly Released: Oct 30, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the alternatives of storing spent nuclear fuel exclusively at utility reactor sites or transferring the waste to a federal facility for monitored retrievable storage (MRS), focusing on the: (1) likelihood of an MRS facility operating by 1998; (2) legal implications if the Department of Energy (DOE) is unable to take delivery of wastes in 1998; (3) propriety of using the Nuclear Waste Fund to pay utilities for on-site storage capacity added after 1998; (4) ability of utilities to store their waste on-site until a repository is operating; and (5) relative costs and safety of the two storage alternatives.

GAO found that: (1) DOE requested $100 million over the next 3 years to develop an MRS facility by 1998; (2) it is unlikely that an MRS facility will be operating by 1998, since the nuclear waste negotiator expects the negotiating and approval process to take considerable time, and Indian tribes and states are reluctant to host MRS facilities; (3) some utilities maintain that, if DOE cannot take delivery of waste by 1998, they will sue DOE; (4) DOE lacks a contingency plan in case it cannot begin accepting waste by 1998; (5) although some utilities argue that they are entitled to compensation from the Nuclear Waste Fund to store waste added after 1998, DOE maintains that federal legislation prohibits using the fund for that purpose; (6) utilities do not need an MRS facility to prevent premature plant shutdowns because of inadequate storage capacity, since evidence indicates that virtually all utilities have the capacity to store their wastes at nuclear plant sites through their licensed 40-year operating lives; (7) in the event that a utility cannot store all of its waste, DOE could provide utility-funded storage at an existing federal facility if Congress renewed the federal interim storage authority; and (8) studies have concluded that there are small differences between the costs and safety of storing waste at an MRS facility or at nuclear plants.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress considered this matter in legislation leading to the Energy Policy Act of 1992, but did not reinstate the interim storage provision of the 1982 act.

    Matter: To provide a safety net in the unlikely event that a utility would have to shut down a reactor because it could no longer accommodate its spent fuel onsite, Congress should reinstate the contract authority under the federal interim storage provision of the 1982 act, which would allow DOE to provide limited storage at an existing federal facility at the utility's expense.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Neither of the appropriation bills passed by the Senate and the House withholds MRS site-related funds. However, appropriation committee conferees criticized "unnecessarily" large DOE budget requests for the MRS program and said the committees are prepared to give line item spending directions in future bills. For fiscal year 1994, 1995, and 1996, DOE did not request funds for MRS site-related activities.

    Matter: Congress should withhold any future funds requested by DOE for site-related activities at least until DOE has demonstrated that a state or tribe has agreed, in principle, to host a facility at a specific site.

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On July 31, 1996, the Senate passed legislation that would, among other things, require federal interim storage of civilian spent nuclear fuel near Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Earlier, the House Commerce Committee reported out a similar bill.

    Matter: Congress may wish to explore, through oversight hearings, whether additional legislation is desirable to address the likelihood that DOE will be unable to begin accepting for storage or disposal utilities' nuclear waste by 1998. In any such inquiry, Congress may wish to consider the issue of equity in reimbursing utilities for their additional storage costs.

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On March 2, 1995, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on legislative proposals that would, among other things, require federal interim storage of civilian spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. On July 31, 1996, the Senate passed a bill containing this requirement. Also, in August 1995, the House Commerce Committee reported out a bill (H.R. 1020) that would, among other things, require DOE to develop a facility for interim storage of spent fuel at DOE's Nevada Test Site, which is adjacent to Yucca Mountain. In both pieces of legislation, Congress considered continued at-reactor storage versus interim storage at a federal facility and found in favor of the latter approach.

    Matter: In future debates on the need for and value of an MRS facility, Congress may wish to consider utilities' capabilities to expand waste storage capacity at their nuclear plant sites and the cost and safety differences between expanded storage of waste at these plants and storage at an MRS facility.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The statutory period for a Nuclear Waste Negotiator has expired, and the position has been abolished without the negotiator reaching agreement with a host state or Indian tribe on a site for a MRS facility. Thus, DOE will not have a federal storage or disposal facility capable of beginning to accept utilities' nuclear waste by January 31, 1998; however, in July 1996, a federal court ruled that DOE does have a legal obligation to accept waste by that date. In a May 1996 planning document, DOE described plans for developing an interim storage facility for utilities' nuclear waste in the event that Congress authorizes such a facility. On July 31, 1996, the Senate passed legislation that, among other things, directed DOE to build an interim storage facility near Yucca Mountain. Earlier, the House Commerce Committee had reported out a similar bill.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should develop plans for the possibility that the nuclear waste negotiator cannot find a site for an MRS facility and that DOE cannot accept utilities' nuclear waste in 1998. These plans should be discussed in the DOE revised mission plan for the nuclear waste program. The plans should address DOE strategies for future MRS facility siting activities, working with utilities to amend the waste disposal contracts, or working with Congress on a legislative solution.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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