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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal - RL33461

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 United States currently has no disposal facility for spent nuclear fuel.

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). 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 state of Nevada strongly opposes the Yucca Mountain project, citing excessive water infiltration, earthquakes, volcanoes, human intrusion, and other technical flaws.

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, OCRWM, or NRC licensing was requested or provided for FY2011 or subsequent years. DOE filed a motion with NRC to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application on March 3, 2010. An NRC licensing board denied DOE’s withdrawal motion on June 29, 2010, a decision sustained by the NRC commissioners on a tie vote September 9, 2011. Despite that decision, NRC halted further consideration of the license application because of “budgetary limitations,” but a federal appeals court on August 13, 2013, ordered NRC to continue the licensing process with previously appropriated funds.

After halting the Yucca Mountain project, the Administration established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to develop an alternative nuclear waste policy. The commission issued its final report on January 26, 2012, recommending that a new, “singlepurpose organization” be given the authority and resources to promptly begin developing one or more nuclear waste repositories and consolidated storage facilities. The commission recommended a “consent based” process for siting nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities and that long-term research, development, and demonstration be conducted on technologies that could provide waste disposal benefits.

After OCRWM was dismantled, responsibility for implementing the Administration’s nuclear waste policy was given to DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy (NE). In January 2013, NE issued a nuclear waste strategy based on the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations. The strategy calls for a pilot interim storage facility for spent fuel from closed nuclear reactors to open by 2021 and a larger storage facility, possibly at the same site, to open by 2025. A site for a permanent underground waste repository would be selected by 2026, and the repository would open by 2048. DOE requested $60 million for FY2014 to carry out the new waste strategy, an amount approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. However, the House denied funding for the new strategy and provided $25 million for Yucca Mountain instead.

Date of Report: December 2, 2013
Number of Pages: 32
Order Number: RL33461
Price: $29.95

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