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, which would be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The program’s civilian costs were required 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 NRC on June 3, 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 was requested or provided for FY2011. DOE filed a motion with NRC to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application on March 3, 2010. DOE’s withdrawal motion has prompted legal challenges from states that have defense-related and civilian waste awaiting permanent disposal. An NRC licensing board denied DOE’s withdrawal motion on June 29, 2010, a decision that is under review by the NRC commissioners.
Alternatives to Yucca Mountain are being evaluated by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The Commission’s draft report, released July 29, 2011, called for a new, “single-purpose organization” to be established to “expeditiously” develop one or more nuclear waste repositories with an “assured” source of funding. The draft recommendations also urged that the roles of various levels of government in siting and regulating nuclear waste facilities be established through negotiations, that one or more “consolidated interim storage facilities” be developed, and that long-term research, development, and demonstration be conducted on technologies that could provide waste disposal benefits.
For FY2012, the Administration again requested no funding for the Yucca Mountain project, but the House provided $25 million to DOE and $20 million to NRC to continue the Yucca Mountain licensing process in the FY2012 energy and water development appropriations bill (H.R. 2354). The House bill specifies that the funds may not be used for closing out licensing activities unless the NRC commissioners accept DOE’s license withdrawal motion, “or for actions that irrevocably remove the possibility that Yucca Mountain may be a repository option in the future.” .
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