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Monday, April 26, 2010

Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal

Mark Holt
Specialist in Energy Policy

Management of civilian radioactive waste has posed difficult issues for Congress since the beginning of the nuclear power industry in the 1950s. Federal policy is based on the premise that nuclear waste can be disposed of safely, but proposed storage and disposal facilities have frequently been challenged on safety, health, and environmental grounds. Although civilian radioactive waste encompasses a wide range of materials, most of the current debate focuses on highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants. 

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) calls for disposal of spent nuclear fuel in a deep geologic repository. NWPA established the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) in the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop such a repository and required the program's civilian costs to be covered by a fee on nuclear-generated electricity, paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund. Amendments to NWPA in 1987 restricted DOE's repository site studies to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. 

DOE submitted a license application for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on June 3, 2008, and NRC docketed the application September 8, 2008. The NRC license must be based on radiation exposure standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which issued revised standards September 30, 2008. The State of Nevada strongly opposes the Yucca Mountain project, disputing DOE's analysis that the repository would meet EPA's standards. Risks cited by repository opponents include excessive water infiltration, earthquakes, volcanoes, and human intrusion. 

The Obama Administration "has determined that developing the Yucca Mountain repository is not a workable option and the Nation needs a different solution for nuclear waste disposal," according to the DOE FY2011 budget justification. As a result, no funding for Yucca Mountain or OCRWM is being requested for FY2011. DOE filed a motion with NRC to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application on March 3, 2010. DOE's withdrawal motion has drawn opposition from states that have defense-related and civilian waste awaiting permanent disposal. Further consideration of the withdrawal motion was suspended by NRC's licensing board April 6, 2010, pending a ruling on related federal court cases. 

Alternatives to Yucca Mountain are to be evaluated by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which held its first meeting March 25-26, 2010. Congress provided $5 million for the Commission in the FY2010 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act. The Commission is to study options for temporary storage, treatment, and permanent disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste, along with an evaluation of nuclear waste research and development programs and the need for legislation. A draft report is to be issued within 18 months and a final report within two years. 

DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) is to take over the remaining functions of OCRWM and "lead all future waste management activities," according to the FY2011 budget justification. Substantial funding has been requested for NE to conduct research on nuclear waste disposal technologies and options and to provide support for the Blue Ribbon Commission. 

Congress provided $198.6 million to OCRWM for FY2010 to continue the Yucca Mountain licensing process but terminate all development activities related to the proposed repository. DOE plans to reprogram the FY2010 funding toward shutting down the program. 

Date of Report: April 9, 2010
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: RL33461
Price: $29.95

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