Nuclear Science:

Developing Technology to Reduce Radioactive Waste May Take Decades and Be Costly

RCED-94-16: Published: Dec 10, 1993. Publicly Released: Jan 13, 1994.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed U.S. research on radioactive waste transmutation technology, focusing on: (1) U.S. efforts to develop the waste transmutation technology; (2) the estimated timing and cost of developing this technology; and (3) the prospects for practical application of the technology to highly radioactive defense and commercial waste.

GAO found that: (1) the Department of Energy's (DOE) radioactive waste managers are not pursuing the transmutation of radioactive waste because they believe that it is too costly and unnecessary; (2) a geological repository will still be needed for residual and untransmutable high-level wastes; (3) other DOE officials are developing concepts to use advanced reactors or accelerators to transmute waste, but they have not done the research necessary to determine the concepts' feasibility; (4) DOE has commissioned the National Research Council to give an independent assessment on the benefits and costs of different transmutation concepts by July 1994; (5) most proponents of waste transmutation believe that commercial spent fuel is a more probable candidate for waste transmutation than defense waste because of its greater volume; (6) there are five transmutation concepts under consideration, but none of the concepts are technically or economically feasible; (7) waste transmutation development and implementation will cost billions of dollars and will not be commercially available until 2015; (8) it could take until 2240 to process all accumulated spent fuel; and (9) practical application of waste transmutation is decades away and could be prevented by funding constraints, the high costs and long lead-times for technology development and implementation, and technical, institutional, and public obstacles.

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