The Nuclear Waste Policy Act:

1984 Implementation Status, Progress, and Problems

RCED-85-100: Published: Sep 30, 1985. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 1985.

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Keith O. Fultz
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Pursuant to the requirements of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) progress in implementing the act, focusing on: (1) the DOE approach to selecting a waste disposal site; (2) DOE negotiations with states and Indian tribes for consultation and cooperation agreements; and (3) DOE planning for monitored retrievable spent fuel storage (MRS).

GAO found that, while DOE achieved several important program objectives in 1984, such as its issuance of final repository siting guidelines and its initiation of spent fuel demonstration projects, it delayed many actions required by the act because of unrealistic scheduling and inadequate contingency planning. Specifically, GAO found that: (1) delays in the issuance of final siting guidelines occurred because DOE was overly optimistic in its planning; (2) while DOE believes that the act requires that it find only one suitable repository site after final testing, a number of states and other groups have questioned the DOE interpretation and claim that three sites must be found suitable, from which one is to be recommended for a repository; and (3) the DOE approach may jeopardize the program's success because, if backup sites are not available, a successful legal challenge to a site recommendation could cause a major setback to the program. GAO also found that: (1) DOE has negotiated with only one state and an Indian tribe for consultation and cooperation agreements; (2) other states and tribes are waiting for further DOE siting decisions before entering negotiations; and (3) one issue that could affect acceptance of such agreements is the $500-million-per-accident liability limit imposed by law for the nuclear waste activities of DOE and its contractors. In addition, GAO found that it will be difficult for DOE to develop both MRS facilities and repositories in a timely manner because the two parts of the program compete for limited staff and financial resources.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The President signed into law amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The amendments dramatically changed the program and infused greater conservatism in the DOE siting approach. DOE was directed to characterize the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, site for development of the first respository. DOE was authorized to site and construct a repository only at the Nevada site.

    Matter: If Congress decides greater conservatism in siting the first repository is needed to provide backup sites, several available options include: (1) confirming the need for alternative sites, but approving DOE testing plans; (2) requiring additional testing prior to the DOE recommendation of three sites for characterization; (3) directing DOE to characterize more than three sites; or (4) directing DOE to modify its site characterization approach by first testing and then characterizing more than three sites.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 1988, Congress passed legislation extending the Price-Anderson Act and increasing the act's limits on liability and indemnification for nuclear waste incidents.

    Matter: If the Price-Anderson Act is extended, Congress should increase the act's limits on liability and indemnification for nuclear incidents involving high-level radioactive waste activities.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the third annual report on the Nuclear Waste Office, DOE began providing information on changes in the waste program's overall policies and procedures, as GAO recommended.

    Recommendation: To keep Congress currently and fully informed of DOE progress in implementing the nuclear waste management program, the Secretary of Energy should: (1) submit to Congress written reports, similar to those required of other federal agencies under section 114(e)(2) of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, giving a separate and full accounting of the reasons for and implications of each actual and expected delay in meeting program deadlines; and (2) address any changes to the program's overall policies or strategies, which may deviate from the mission plan, in each annual report of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM).

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOE stated that it believes the specific plans GAO recommended are unnecessary and could be counterproductive.

    Recommendation: To reduce the risks to the waste management program of delays if a selected site cannot be successfully characterized, the Secretary of Energy should prepare contingency plans identifying which site or sites would be considered as backup sites to the three recommended for testing and how, and under what circumstances, that site or sites would be tested.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The DOE MRS proposal links operation of an MRS to receipt of a construction authorization for the repository. This would ensure that MRS could not operate until a repository is almost a certainty. However, it does not ensure that resources and efforts expended in constructing an MRS will not delay repository construction and operation.

    Recommendation: To assist Congress in its deliberations on whether to authorize construction of MRS facilities, the Secretary of Energy should explain to Congress, in the January 1986 MRS proposal, how DOE will ensure that an MRS project would operate within OCRWM so as not to impede progress of the repository program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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