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High-Level Nuclear Waste DisposalA Fact Sheet
Mark Holt (1)
November 4, 1993
The Federal government's high-level waste disposal program is designed to build a permanent repository for highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and defense facilities. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) created an office in the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop this repository, to be paid for by a fee on nuclear-generated electricity.
Current activities. Congress has limited DOE's repository development activities to one site Yucca Mountain, Nevada. A monitored retrievable storage (MRS) facility for high-level waste (HLW) is also authorized, but no candidate site has been selected. DOE hopes that a voluntary site for the MRS can be found that could store waste until a permanent repository can be opened, currently scheduled for 2010. A starter tunnel for underground studies at Yucca Mountain is underway. Site characteristics to be investigated include seismic activity, the possibility of volcanism, groundwater seepage, and the risk of future human intrusion.
The cost of DOE's commercial high-level nuclear waste disposal activities is paid for by the Nuclear Waste Fund, which receives roughly $600 million in annual funding provided by a fee on commercial nuclear power, and interest earned by the fund itself. Additional funding is appropriated annually by Congress to pay for defense high-level waste disposal.
Total program costs. DOE estimates the total cost of its HLW management program, in 1991 dollars, at $25-35 billion. Completing the scientific investigation and licensing of the Yucca Mountain site is expected to cost $6-7 billion.
Spending to date. Total Nuclear Waste Fund expenditures through the end of FY1993 are nearly $3.7 billion. The fund currently holds $3.9 billion. Utilities are upset that only about half is being spent because of congressional budget restraints. Various proposals have been made to circumvent that problem and allow repository studies to proceed more quickly.
Current spending. The appropriation for FY1994 is $380 million, of which $260 million comes from the Nuclear Waste Fund. The remaining $120 million comes from general revenues to pay for defense waste.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA, P.L. 97-425) called for deep geologic disposal of spent nuclear fuel, the highly radioactive fuel rods removed from commercial nuclear reactors. DOE was required to study three sites for the Nation's first repository, primarily in the West, and also to identify candidate sites for a possible Eastern repository. The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1987 (Title IV, Subtitle A of P.L. 100-203) narrowed DOE's repository investigations to Yucca Mountain and canceled the Eastern repository.
NWPA requires that HLW facilities developed pursuant to the Act be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), in accordance with standards issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Also, DOE cannot apply for an NRC license until determining that the site meets suitability guidelines prepared by DOE and approved by NRC. Heavy disposal casks will constitute the primary barrier to radioactivity releases, with the physical characteristics of the mountain expected to back up the performance of the casks.
EPA standards (40 CFR Part 191). EPA's general repository standards limit the amount of radioactive material that is likely to be released over 10,000 years, and restrict the annual radiation dose to any member of the public to 25 millirems. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-486) changed the waste regulation system so that site-specific standards for Yucca Mountain must be developed, overriding previous EPA standards at that site.
NRC requirements (10 CFR Part 60). To receive an NRC license, DOE must comply with EPA's standards, as well as additional NRC repository and cask performance criteria.
DOE standards (10 CFR Part 960). In concurrence with NRC, this establishes the criteria by which DOE judges the suitability of a repository before applying for an NRC license.
Transportation regulations (10 CFR Part 71, CFR Title 49). A framework has been designed by DOE, NRC, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Interstate Commerce Commission to oversee all aspects of transporting HLW.
DOE hopes to begin loading waste into the Yucca Mountain repository by 2010, although that schedule depends largely on substantial funding increases. Under that schedule, scientific studies at Yucca Mountain would be completed by late 2001, when a license application would be submitted to NRC. An NRC construction permit would be issued in 2004, and repository construction (using previously drilled exploratory tunnels) would take another five years.
Program problems and delays. Nuclear utilities, which have signed contracts with DOE to begin taking waste by NWPA's original goal of 1998, are pushing for interim storage or other measures if that deadline is missed as now expected. Slow completion and approval of the
Department's site characterization plan, as well as the State of Nevada's opposition to the project after 1987, have proven to be major delays. Controlling costs and schedules, political and public perception problems with a controversial facility, and the uncertainty of geology and hydrology have caused delays as well. (For additional information, see Issue Brief 92059, Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal.)
1. Under the supervision of Mark Holt, Adam Neale, an interning environmental policy major from Boston University, researched and contributed to this report.
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