Redistributed as a Service of the National Library for the Environment*
IB92059: Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal
July 30, 2001
Management of civilian radioactive waste has posed difficult issues for Congress since the beginning of the nuclear power industry in the 1950s. Although federal policy is based on the premise that nuclear waste can be disposed of safely, new storage and disposal facilities for all types of radioactive waste have frequently been delayed or blocked by concerns about safety, health, and the environment.
Civilian radioactive waste ranges from the highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants to the far-less-radioactive uranium mill tailings that result from the processing of uranium ore. Most of the debate over civilian waste disposal focuses on spent fuel and on "low level" waste from nuclear power plants, medical institutions, civilian research facilities, and industry.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) calls for disposal of spent nuclear fuel in a repository in a deep geologic formation that is unlikely to be disturbed for thousands of years. NWPA established an office 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 is studying numerous scientific issues in determining the suitability of Yucca Mountain for a nuclear waste repository, which must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Questions about the site include the likelihood of earthquakes, volcanoes, groundwater contamination, and human intrusion.
NWPA's goal for loading waste into the repository was 1998, but DOE does not expect to open the facility until 2010 at the earliest. DOE issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Yucca Mountain site in July 1999 and plans to apply for an NRC license in 2003 to build the repository. DOE is requesting $445 million for the program in FY2002, an increase of more than $50 million from the FY2001 base appropriation. The House approved all but $2 million of the request in the FY2002 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill (H.R. 2311), but the Senate voted to cut the program to $275 million. An omnibus energy bill (H.R. 4) introduced July 27, 2001, would take the Nuclear Waste Fund off budget.
Low-level waste sites are a state responsibility under the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980. Pursuant to that act, 10 regional compacts for disposal of low-level waste have been approved by Congress, most recently a compact among Texas, Maine, and Vermont.
But only three commercial low-level waste sites are currently operating, in the states of South Carolina, Utah, and Washington. The Washington facility is accepting waste just from within the Northwest and Rocky Mountain regional compacts, and the Utah site accepts only the least-concentrated class of low-level waste, although it has received preliminary approval to accept the other major low-level waste classes as well.
Omnibus energy legislation introduced July 27 (H.R. 4) would take the Nuclear Waste Fund off-budget, potentially allowing higher appropriations for the Department of Energy (DOE) civilian nuclear waste management program. The bill also would establish a DOE program to conduct research on "recycling" nuclear spent fuel. The nuclear waste provisions in the omnibus bill were taken from separate energy bills approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee July 19 (H.R. 2587) and the House Science Committee July 18 (H.R. 2460). H.R. 4 is scheduled for House floor action before the August recess.
President Bush's FY2002 funding request, submitted to Congress April 9, includes $445 million for the DOE civilian nuclear waste disposal program, which is studying the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada as a permanent waste repository. The House voted June 28 in the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill (H.R. 2311) to provide all but $2 million of the request. However, the Senate version of the bill, approved July 19, cut the program's funding to $275 million, a level that critics warned would lead to further program delays.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued long-delayed environmental standards June 6 for a permanent underground nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. The final standards are similar to those proposed by EPA under the Clinton Administration, including a controversial separate standard for groundwater protection. The Department of Energy (DOE), which is studying the Yucca Mountain site, had opposed the proposed standards as unnecessarily stringent but has indicated that the site can probably meet them.
Comprehensive energy legislation (S. 388) introduced by Senator Murkowski February 26, 2001, includes provisions on nuclear waste management and disposal. One provision would prevent "irreversible action relating to the disposal of spent nuclear fuel" until Congress had determined whether to permanently bury the spent fuel as waste or to extract plutonium and uranium from the spent fuel to make new nuclear fuel. S. 388 also would establish a waste research program similar to that of H.R. 4. Similar provisions are included in a nuclear energy bill (S. 472) introduced March 7 by Senator Domenici.
Nuclear waste has sometimes been called the Achilles' heel of the nuclear power industry; much of the controversy over nuclear power centers on the lack of a disposal system for the highly radioactive spent fuel that must be regularly removed from operating reactors. As a result, progress on nuclear waste disposal is widely considered a prerequisite for any future growth of nuclear power.
Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) and 1987 amendments, the Department of Energy (DOE) is studying the suitability of Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for housing a deep underground repository for spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste. The state of Nevada has fought DOE's efforts on the grounds that the site is unsafe, pointing to potential volcanic activity, earthquakes, water infiltration, underground flooding, nuclear chain reactions, and fossil fuel and mineral deposits that might encourage future human intrusion.
However, DOE contends that the evidence so far indicates that Yucca Mountain is likely to prove suitable and that studies of the site should continue. A "viability assessment" issued by the Department December 18, 1998, concluded that "no show stoppers have been identified to date at Yucca Mountain." A Draft Environmental Impact Statement completed by DOE in July 1999 reiterated those findings, recommending that the project proceed as planned http://www.ymp.gov/timeline/eis/deis.htm. The planned Yucca Mountain repository is not scheduled to open until 2010 at the earliest, more than a decade later than the 1998 goal specified by NWPA. (For more information on the Yucca Mountain scientific studies, see CRS Report RL30190 (pdf), Proposed High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository: Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Progress.)
The safety of geologic disposal of highly radioactive waste, as planned in the United States, depends largely on the characteristics of the rock formations from which a repository would be excavated. Because many geologic formations are believed to have remained undisturbed for millions of years, it appeared technically feasible to isolate radioactive materials from the environment until they decayed to safe levels. "There is no scientific or technical reason to think that a satisfactory geological repository cannot be built," according to the National Research Council.
But, as the Yucca Mountain controversy indicates, scientific confidence about the concept of deep geologic disposal has turned out to be difficult to apply to specific sites. Every high-level waste site that has been proposed by DOE and its predecessor agencies has faced allegations or discovery of unacceptable flaws, such as groundwater flow or earthquake vulnerability, that could release radioactivity into the environment. Much of the problem results from the inherent uncertainty involved in predicting waste site performance for the 10,000-year period that nuclear waste is to be isolated. Opponents of geologic disposal have urged greater emphasis on new or alternative technologies that might allow entirely different approaches to high-level radioactive waste management.
Other Programs. Other types of civilian radioactive waste have also generated public controversy, particularly low-level radioactive waste, which is produced by nuclear power plants, medical institutions, industrial operations, and research activities. Civilian low-level waste currently is disposed of in large trenches at sites in South Carolina and Washington state, and the Washington facility does not accept waste from outside its region. The lowest-concentration class of low-level radioactive waste is also accepted by a commercial disposal facility in Utah, which is applying for a license to receive all major classes of low-level waste. Threats by states to close their disposal facilities led to congressional authorization of regional compacts for low-level waste disposal in 1985, although no new sites have been opened by any of the 10 authorized disposal compacts.
Nuclear utilities, which pay for most of the high-level waste disposal program through a fee on nuclear power, have sued DOE for failing to begin the removal of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors by January 31, 1998, the deadline established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
In response to a utility lawsuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled November 14, 1997, that DOE would be liable for unspecified damages to nuclear utilities if it missed the 1998 deadline. DOE was ordered to work out a remedy with the utilities under the procedures of the standard disposal contract signed by all nuclear utilities pursuant to NWPA.
In the first set of rulings on breach-of-contract suits filed by several utilities, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims decreed on October 29, 1998, that DOE must pay fuel storage costs for three closed commercial reactors. Those costs are to be determined by future trials; the three utilities are claiming damages of $2.4 billion. Damage claims were denied to Northern States Power by another Court of Federal Claims judge on April 6, 1999, but that ruling was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on August 31, 2000. The Appeals court decision cleared the way for nuclear power companies to proceed with lawsuits in the Court of Federal Claims against DOE. Industry officials contend that total damages for missing the 1998 disposal deadline could eventually reach tens of billions of dollars, assuming that no disposal ever takes place.
DOE has been negotiating with various reactor owners since 1999 on the missed nuclear waste deadline and reached its first settlement agreement with a nuclear utility, PECO Energy Co., on July 19, 2000. The agreement allows PECO to keep up to $80 million in nuclear waste fee revenues during the next 10 years and may result in DOE's taking title to waste and storage facilities at PECO's Peach Bottom plant in Pennsylvania. In return, PECO agreed not to sue DOE over the missed disposal deadline. Several utilities expressed opposition to the agreement, but DOE said others are considering similar settlements.
Although some of the delays have been blamed on poor program management, DOE contends that tight funding has been a major barrier. DOE cannot spend the nuclear industry's mandatory waste fees without congressional approval, and only about half the total fees collected have been appropriated to the program so far. However, some surplus in the fund may be necessary to pay future nuclear waste disposal costs after today's nuclear plants have ceased operation.
The nuclear industry and its supporters have urged Congress to require DOE to build an interim storage facility that could begin receiving spent fuel from nuclear power plants as soon after the missed 1998 deadline as possible. Such a facility, consisting of storage casks on concrete pads or in surface-based bunkers, could reduce spent fuel storage costs, increase safety, and fulfill the federal government's legal obligations, supporters contend (see NEI perspective at http://www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=1&catid=14).
But environmental, anti-nuclear power, and other groups warn that interim storage would result in earlier transportation of unprecedented quantities of nuclear waste; they contend it would be safer to leave the waste in place until a permanent solution can be found (see Nuclear Information and Resource Service perspective at http://www.nirs.org/fctsht.htm). (For more on the controversy over nuclear waste transportation, see CRS Report 97-403 (pdf), Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel.)
The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, an independent scientific advisory body established by NWPA, recommended in March 1997 that selection of an interim storage site be deferred until Yucca Mountain's suitability as a permanent repository had been determined. The Board contends that DOE should place top priority on the underground repository, rather than interim storage. (For more background on nuclear waste storage, see CRS Report 96-212, Civilian Nuclear Spent Fuel Temporary Storage Options.)
The outlook for major nuclear waste legislation in the 107th Congress remains unclear, with no stand-alone waste bills yet introduced. Omnibus energy legislation introduced July 27, 2001 (H.R. 4) would take all expenditures and receipts of the Nuclear Waste Fund off-budget; the provision was taken from an energy bill (H.R. 2587) approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee July 19, 2001. In analyzing the same provision in a Committee-passed nuclear waste bill in the 106th Congress (H.R. 45), the Congressional Budget Office concluded that it "could ease the way for increased federal spending by exempting such spending from budgetary controls." The nuclear industry and other program supporters have long contended that funding constraints have slowed the program's progress. Opponents of the program, particularly the State of Nevada, contend that increased spending should not be directed to the Yucca Mountain site, which they view as fundamentally flawed.
H.R. 4 also includes a provision to establish a spent nuclear fuel "recycling" research and development program, for which $10 million would be authorized for FY2002 and "such sums as necessary" for the following two years. The provision is based on language in an energy bill (H.R. 2460) ordered reported by the House Science Committee July 18, 2001. Supporters of such research contend that new technologies could reduce the volume and long-term toxicity of nuclear waste, particularly by destroying plutonium in the waste through nuclear fission. Opponents note that such treatment requires reprocessing of spent fuel to at least partially separate its major constituents, such as uranium and plutonium, and that separated plutonium could be used for nuclear explosives. Such a program, opponents contend, could undermine U.S. nuclear nonproliferation efforts aimed at discouraging other nations from separating plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. H.R. 4 specifies that technologies pursued by the program should be "proliferation-resistant."
Some aspects of the nuclear waste issue are also addressed by a comprehensive energy bill (S. 388) introduced by Senator Murkowski February 26, 2001. The legislation would prevent "irreversible action relating to the disposal of spent nuclear fuel" until Congress had determined whether to permanently bury the spent fuel as waste or to extract plutonium and uranium from the spent fuel to make new nuclear fuel. S. 388 also would establish a nuclear waste research program similar to that in the House Science Committee bill and H.R. 4. Similar provisions are included in a nuclear energy bill (S. 472) introduced by Senator Domenici March 7, 2001.
In the 106th Congress, comprehensive legislation to rewrite NWPA and require construction of an interim storage facility near Yucca Mountain was approved by the House Commerce Committee April 21, 1999, by a vote of 40-6 (H.R. 45, H.Rept. 106-155). In addition to mandating interim storage, the bill would have modified the licensing standards for a permanent underground repository, revised the program's funding mechanism, and authorized DOE to take title to spent fuel stored at commercial reactor sites.
The Clinton Administration's primary stated objection to H.R. 45 and similar bills introduced in the previous two Congresses was that nuclear waste should not be stored temporarily near Yucca Mountain before the site had been found suitable for permanent underground disposal. Supporters of the interim storage legislation contend that the December 1998 viability assessment, which found "no show stoppers" at Yucca Mountain, should have been sufficient to overcome the Clinton Administration's major concerns. However, Administration officials subsequently indicated that more study was necessary before the veto threat would be lifted. The Clinton Administration also threatened a veto over provisions in the bills that would have given NRC sole authority to set radiation protection standards for the repository, eliminating EPA's role.
Faced with continued Clinton Administration opposition to interim storage at Yucca Mountain during the 106th Congress, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee set aside a comprehensive nuclear waste bill that had been referred to the panel (S. 608) and instead reported an original measure (S. 1287, S.Rept. 106-98) that concentrated on storage at reactor sites. Under S. 1287 as approved by the Committee, DOE would have been authorized to take title to spent fuel at reactor sites and to begin receiving waste at Yucca Mountain as soon as possible after NRC granted a construction permit for a permanent underground repository. In addition, the Committee-passed bill included the elimination of EPA's authority to set environmental standards for the repository, drawing continued veto threats.
On the Senate floor, the provision authorizing DOE to take title to waste at reactor sites drew substantial opposition from a number of states with nuclear power plants. Opponents of the "take title" provision contended that once nuclear utilities had handed their waste over to DOE, the pressure to continue progress on a permanent repository would decrease, and the spent fuel could remain at reactor sites indefinitely. To ease those concerns, the provision was dropped from the bill before the final vote. Supporters of the legislation attempted to address the Clinton Administration's objections to the elimination of EPA's standard-setting authority by instead prohibiting EPA from issuing final standards for the repository before June 1, 2001, but the Administration responded with a further veto threat February 8, 2000. With those changes, the Senate passed S. 1287 February 10, 2000, by a vote of 64-34. The House passed S. 1287 without amendment on March 22, 2000, by a vote of 253-167, sending it to the President's desk.
As promised, President Clinton vetoed the bill April 25, 2000. The Senate attempted to override the veto on May 2, 2000, but fell three votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority (64-35).
Radioactive waste is a term that encompasses a broad range of material with widely varying characteristics. Some is barely radioactive and safe to handle, while other types are intensely hot in both temperature and radioactivity. Some decays to safe levels of radioactivity in a matter of days or weeks, while other types will remain dangerous for thousands of years. Major types of radioactive waste are generally defined by DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as follows:
Spent nuclear fuel. Fuel rods that have been permanently withdrawn from a nuclear reactor because they can no longer efficiently sustain a nuclear chain reaction (although they contain uranium and plutonium that could be extracted through reprocessing to make new fuel). By far the most radioactive type of civilian nuclear waste, spent fuel contains extremely hot but relatively short-lived fission products (fragments of uranium and other fissile elements) as well as long-lived radionuclides such as plutonium, which remains dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years.
High-level waste. Highly radioactive residue created by spent fuel reprocessing (almost entirely for defense purposes in the United States). High-level waste contains most of the radioactive fission products of spent fuel, but most of the uranium and plutonium usually has been removed for re-use. Enough long-lived radioactive elements remain, however, to require isolation for 10,000 years or more.
Transuranic waste. Relatively low-activity waste that contains more than a certain level of long-lived elements heavier than uranium (primarily plutonium). Shielding may be required for handling of some types of TRU waste. In the United States, transuranic waste is generated almost entirely by nuclear weapons production processes. Because of the plutonium, long-term isolation is required.
Low-level waste. Radioactive waste not classified as spent fuel, high-level waste, TRU waste, or byproduct material such as uranium mill tailings (below). Four classes of low-level waste have been established by NRC, ranging from least radioactive and shortest-lived to the longest-lived and most radioactive. Although some types of low-level waste can be more radioactive than some types of high-level waste, in general low-level waste contains relatively low amounts of radioactivity and decays relatively quickly. Low-level waste disposal facilities cannot accept material that exceeds NRC concentration limits.
Uranium mill tailings. Sand-like residues remaining from the processing of uranium ore. Such tailings have very low radioactivity but extremely large volumes that can pose a hazard, particularly from radon emissions or groundwater contamination.
Mixed waste. High-level, low-level or TRU waste that contains hazardous non- radioactive waste. Such waste poses serious institutional problems, because the radioactive portion is regulated by DOE or NRC under the Atomic Energy Act, while EPA regulates the non-radioactive elements under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
When spent nuclear fuel is removed from a reactor, usually after several years of power production, it is very hot and highly radioactive. The spent fuel is in the form of fuel assemblies, which consist of arrays of metal-clad fuel rods 12-15 feet long.
A fresh fuel rod, which emits relatively little radioactivity, contains uranium that has been slightly enriched in the isotope U-235. But after nuclear fission has taken place in the reactor, many of the uranium atoms in the fuel rods have been split into a variety of highly radioactive fission products; others have absorbed neutrons to become radioactive plutonium, some of which has also split into fission products. Radioactive gases are also contained in the spent fuel rods. Newly withdrawn spent fuel assemblies are stored in large pools of water adjacent to the reactors to keep them from overheating and to protect workers from radiation.
The approximately 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel discharged from U.S. commercial nuclear reactors through 1999 is currently stored at about 70 power plant sites around the nation. (Some is also held at two small central storage facilities.) As long as nuclear power continues to be generated, the amounts stored at plant sites will continue to grow until an interim storage facility or a permanent repository can be opened -- or until alternative treatment and disposal technology is developed.
A typical large commercial nuclear reactor discharges an average of 20-30 metric tons of spent fuel per year -- about 2,000 metric tons annually for the entire U.S. nuclear power industry. As a result, the total amount of spent fuel is expected to reach 60,000 metric tons by 2010, the earliest feasible date for opening the Yucca Mountain repository, and almost 80,000 metric tons by 2020.
Large amounts of new storage capacity at nuclear plant sites will obviously be required if DOE is unable to begin accepting waste into its disposal system for another 12 years. Most utilities are expected to construct new dry storage capacity for their older fuel. On-site dry storage facilities currently in operation or planned typically consist of metal casks or concrete modules. NRC has determined that spent fuel could be stored safely at reactor sites for up to 100 years.
Low-level waste disposed of in commercial sites makes up about a third of all accumulated low-level waste in the United States; the remaining two-thirds has been generated by DOE activities and sent to DOE-owned disposal sites. About 320,000 cubic feet of commercial low-level waste was shipped to disposal sites in 1997. The volume of commercial low-level radioactive waste peaked in 1980 and fell sharply in the 1990s, primarily because of escalating disposal fees.
The vast majority of commercial low-level waste typically consists of the least hazardous "Class A" waste. In 1997, nuclear utilities generated nearly two-thirds of the volume of commercially disposed low-level waste, industrial activities accounted for about a fourth, government for less than 10%, academic activities for about 2%, and medical institutions for less than 1%, according to DOE. About 85% of the radioactivity came from utility waste. Nuclear utilities' share of total volume and radioactivity is expected to rise when current reactors are decommissioned, because significant numbers of components have become radioactive during operation and will be disposed of as low-level waste -- some of it relatively long-lived.
Spent fuel and high-level waste are a federal responsibility, while states are required to develop disposal facilities for commercial low-level waste. In general, disposal requirements have grown more stringent over the years, in line with overall national environmental policy and heightened concerns about the hazards of radioactivity.
Current Program. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA, P.L. 97-425) established a system for selecting a geologic repository for permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste and created a DOE office to carry out the program, the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM). The Nuclear Waste Fund, consisting of a fee on commercial nuclear power and federal contributions for emplacement of high-level defense waste, was established to pay for the program. DOE was required to select three candidate sites for the first national high-level waste repository.
After much controversy over DOE's implementation of NWPA, the Act was substantially modified by the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1987 (Title IV, Subtitle A of P.L. 100-203, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987). Under the amendments, the only candidate site DOE may consider for a permanent high-level waste repository is at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. If that site proves unsuitable, DOE must return to Congress for further instructions.
The 1987 amendments also authorized construction of a monitored retrievable storage (MRS) facility to store spent fuel and prepare it for delivery to the repository. But because of fears that the MRS would reduce the need to open the permanent repository and become a de facto repository itself, the law forbids DOE from selecting an MRS site until recommending to the President that a repository be constructed (which is not scheduled to take place until 2001) although the search for an MRS site may begin at any time. In addition, construction of an MRS facility may not begin until NRC has granted a construction license for the permanent repository, and construction or operation of the MRS must cease if repository construction is interrupted. No more than 10,000 metric tons of waste may be stored at the MRS before the permanent repository begins operating, and no more than 15,000 metric tons thereafter.
Waste Facility Schedules. DOE's most recent nuclear waste program schedule calls for the repository to begin operating by 2010 -- 12 years later than the law's target date. According to a draft Civilian Radioactive Waste Program Plan issued in May 1996, the 2010 opening can be achieved despite severe budget cuts imposed for FY1996.
The major activity at the Yucca Mountain site is the excavation of an "exploratory studies facility" (ESF) with a 25-foot-diameter tunnel boring machine. The ESF consists primarily of a five-mile tunnel with ramps leading to the surface at its north and south ends. The tunnel boring machine began excavating the north ramp in October 1994 and broke through to the surface at the south entrance April 25, 1997. Underground studies are being conducted at several side alcoves that have been excavated off the main tunnel.
DOE completed a "viability assessment" of Yucca Mountain in December 1998, which was followed by a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project in July 1999, which was updated in May 2001. Upcoming major milestones for the program, however, have been pushed back by DOE's FY2002 budget request. Under the new schedule, if the Yucca Mountain site appears acceptable, DOE would issue a final EIS and recommend approval by the President in FY2002, rather than FY2001 as previously planned. Upon presidential approval, DOE plans to submit a license application to NRC in FY2003, instead of FY2002. DOE then hopes to receive the necessary NRC construction permit and operating license in time to allow waste disposal in the repository to begin in 2010. The repository is to be permanently closed in 2116, according to the DOE viability assessment. The DOE Total System Life Cycle Cost Report, issued in May 2001, estimates that the entire program will cost $49.3 billion (in constant 2000 dollars) from 2001-2119. The report says the program spent $6.7 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars through FY2000.
Interim Storage. Delays in the federal nuclear waste program have prompted interest in a private interim storage facility. A utility consortium signed an agreement with a Utah Indian tribe on December 27, 1996, to develop a private spent fuel storage facility on tribal land. The Private Fuel Storage (PFS) consortium submitted a license application to NRC June 25, 1997. Project officials told NRC in March 1997 that the dry-cask storage facility would be located on 98 acres of the sparsely populated reservation of the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians, about 70 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The initial lease for the site would run for 25 years, with possible renewal for another 25 years. The facility's capacity would be 40,000 metric tons, available to any U.S. nuclear utility in addition to the eight consortium members. The facility, strongly opposed by the State of Utah, would not require DOE assistance or congressional or state approval. PFS estimates that construction of the facility could start by 2002 and spent fuel shipments could begin in 2004 if an NRC license is granted by late 2001.
Regulatory Requirements. NWPA requires that high-level waste facilities be licensed by the NRC in accordance with general standards issued by EPA. Under the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-486), EPA was required to write new standards specifically for Yucca Mountain. NWPA also requires the repository to meet general siting guidelines prepared by DOE and approved by NRC. Transportation of waste to storage and disposal sites is regulated by NRC and the Department of Transportation.
NRC's repository licensing requirements, at 10 CFR 60, require compliance with EPA's standards and establish a number of other performance criteria that DOE must meet. For example, waste packages and other engineered barriers must provide "substantially complete" containment for at least 300 years and must not release radionuclides (radioactive material) above specified rates. Another key NRC requirement is that radionuclides must be prevented from reaching the accessible environment for at least 1,000 years. The NRC licensing requirements will have to be made consistent with EPA's new site-specific repository standards.
DOE's repository siting guidelines, at 10 CFR 960, developed with NRC concurrence, establish the criteria DOE will use in determining the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site. DOE proposed changes to the suitability criteria November 30, 1999, drawing severe criticism from environmental groups. The proposal would replace numerous individual disqualifying conditions, such as a high rate of water movement through the repository, with an analysis of "total system performance," in which previously unacceptable conditions could be mitigated by other factors.
Upon finding Yucca Mountain suitable, the Secretary of Energy would recommend the site to the President, who if he concurred would submit the recommendation to Congress. The President's recommendation could then be "vetoed" by the state or Indian Tribe hosting the proposed repository, but that veto could be overridden by a congressional resolution signed by the President. Once the President's siting recommendation took effect, DOE could apply to NRC for a license.
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-486) made a number of changes in the nuclear waste regulatory system, particularly that EPA must issue new environmental standards specifically for the Yucca Mountain repository site. General EPA repository standards previously issued and subsequently revised no longer apply to Yucca Mountain. DOE and NRC had complained that some of EPA's general standards might be impossible or impractical to meet.
The new standards, which would limit the radiation dose that the repository could impose on individual members of the public, must be consistent with the findings of a study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which was issued August 1, 1995. The NAS study recommends that the Yucca Mountain environmental standards establish a limit on risk to individuals near the repository, rather than setting specific limits for the releases of radioactive material or on radioactive doses, as under previous EPA standards. In the 106th Congress, S. 1287 would have established a risk limit, while H.R. 45 would have established a dose limit. The NAS study also examined the potential for human intrusion into the repository and found no scientific basis for predicting human behavior thousands of years into the future.
Pursuant to the Energy Policy Act, EPA published its proposed Yucca Mountain radiation protection standards on August 27, 1999. The proposal would have limited annual radiation doses to 15 millirems for the "reasonably maximally exposed individual," and to 4 millirems from groundwater exposure, for the first 10,000 years of repository operation. EPA calculated that its standard would result in an annual risk of fatal cancer for the maximally exposed individual of seven chances in a million. NRC has proposed a Yucca Mountain standard of 25 millirems, with no separate groundwater standard. The nuclear industry criticized the EPA proposal as being unnecessarily stringent, particularly the groundwater standard. On the other hand, environmental groups contended that the 10,000-year standard proposed by EPA was too short, because DOE had projected that radioactive releases from the repository would peak well after that period.
EPA issued its final Yucca Mountain standards on June 6, 2001. The final standards include most of the major provisions of the proposed version, including the 15 millirem overall exposure limit and the 4 millirem groundwater limit. The most significant changes in the final rules were to require that compliance be demonstrated about one mile closer to the repository and to double the amount of groundwater that would be analyzed. NRC plans to change its rules to conform to the EPA standards. Despite their opposition to the EPA standards, DOE officials have indicated that they still expect the Yucca Mountain site to be able to meet them.
Alternative Technologies. A number of alternatives to the geologic disposal of spent fuel have been studied by DOE and its predecessor agencies, as well as technologies that might make waste disposal easier. However, most of these technologies involve large technical obstacles, uncertain costs, and potential public opposition.
Among the primary long-term disposal alternatives to geologic repositories are disposal in deep ocean trenches and transport into space, neither of which is currently being studied by DOE. Other technologies have been studied that, while probably not replacing geologic disposal, might make geologic disposal safer and more predictable. Chief among these is the concept of "burning" long-lived plutonium and other radionuclides in a special nuclear reactor or particle accelerator, converting them to faster-decaying fission products. The FY2001 Energy and Water bill establishes an Advanced Accelerator Applications program, with $3 million earmarked for spent fuel research in Nevada. No new funding for the program was included in the DOE FY2002 budget request or the House-passed version of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill (H.R. 2311), but the Senate-passed version provides $70 million. The spent fuel recycling program authorized by H.R. 4 would be related to the waste transmutation research.
Table 1. DOE Civilian Spent Fuel
Sources: DOE FY2002 Congressional Budget Request, Appropriations reports, Congressional Record
* Subcategories not specified.
The House-passed FY2002 Energy and Water Appropriations bill (H.R. 2311, H.Rept. 107-112) would provide all but $2 million of the Administration request. However, the Senate voted to cut the program to $275 million (S.Rept. 107-39), a move that drew controversy during floor debate. Senator Murkowski warned that the reduction would delay the program by several years and force layoffs of 650 federal and contractor personnel working on the Yucca Mountain project. In response to such criticism, Senator Reid, Chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, added a Sense of the Senate resolution to H.R. 2311 that urged Senate conferees to "ensure that the levels of funding included in the Senate bill for the Yucca Mountain program are increased to an amount closer to that included in the House-passed version. . . ."
As Table 1 indicates, about half of the FY2001 funding for the program final bill comes from the Nuclear Waste Fund, with the rest coming from the defense waste account. The FY2002 request would fund more than two-thirds of the program from the defense waste account. Although nuclear utilities pay fees to the Nuclear Waste Fund to cover the disposal costs of civilian nuclear spent fuel, DOE cannot spend the money in the fund until it is appropriated by Congress. Through the end of FY2000, utility nuclear waste fees and interest totaled $15.2 billion, of which about $5.5 billion had been disbursed to the waste disposal program, according to DOE, leaving a balance of $9.6 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund. Another $2.3 billion was owed by utilities for spent fuel generated before 1983. The nuclear waste program's appropriations for FY1983-FY2000 total about $6.7 billion, according to DOE, including $1.2 billion for defense waste disposal.
The FY2001 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill, signed by President Clinton October 27, 2000 (P.L. 106-377), provides an additional $10 million if needed to prevent program delays. The $10 million comes from $85 million appropriated in FY1996
for interim storage, which had been contingent on enactment of the interim storage legislation vetoed by President Clinton. The remaining $75 million of the interim storage funding was rescinded by the FY2001 appropriations bill.
Current Policy. Disposal of low-level radioactive waste, which generally consists of low concentrations of relatively short-lived radionuclides, is a state responsibility under the 1980 Low-level Radioactive Waste Policy Act and 1985 amendments. Most states have joined congressionally approved interstate compacts to handle low-level waste disposal, while others are developing single-state disposal sites. Under the 1985 amendments, the nation's three (at that time) operating commercial low-level waste disposal facilities could start refusing to accept waste from outside their regional interstate compacts after the end of 1992. One site is currently using that authority, leaving only one open to nationwide disposal of all major types of low-level waste. A third site, in Utah, has since become available nationwide for most Class A low-level waste. The Utah site's operator, Envirocare, applied to the State on November 1, 1999, for a license amendment to accept Class B and C waste as well. Utah regulators announced preliminary approval of the request January 2, 2001.
Despite the 1992 deadline, no new disposal sites have been opened. A facility in California's Ward Valley to serve California, Arizona, North Dakota, and South Dakota received a state operating permit in 1993. However, the site is on federal land, which the Department of the Interior would not transfer to the state as had originally been expected. As a result, California Governor Davis established an advisory committee in June 1999 to explore alternatives to the Ward Valley disposal site.
Texas is to develop a disposal site under a recently approved compact with Maine and Vermont. Legislation providing congressional consent to the compact was signed by President Clinton September 20, 1998 (P.L. 105-236). However, the future of the new compact's disposal program was thrown into uncertainty by the October 22, 1998, rejection of a proposed disposal site near Sierra Blanca, Texas, by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.
The Midwestern Compact voted June 26, 1997, to halt development of a disposal facility in Ohio. Nebraska regulators rejected a proposed waste site for the Central Compact December 21, 1998, drawing a lawsuit from five utilities in the region. Most other regional disposal compacts and individual states that have not joined compacts are making little progress toward finding disposal sites, largely because of public opposition and the continued availability of the disposal facilities in South Carolina and, for most Class A waste, Utah. "Presently, no state or compact is trying to identify a site for a disposal facility," according to a September 1999 report by the General Accounting Office.
Only one disposal facility, at Barnwell, S.C., is currently accepting all Class A, B and C low-level waste from most states. The Barnwell facility had stopped accepting waste from outside the Southeast Compact at the end of June 1994. Then the Southeast Compact Commission in May 1995 twice rejected a South Carolina proposal to open the Barnwell site to waste generators outside the Southeast and to bar access to North Carolina until that state opened a new regional disposal facility, as required by the Compact. The rejection of those proposals led the South Carolina General Assembly vote in 1995 to withdraw from the Southeast Compact and begin accepting waste at Barnwell from all states but North Carolina.
North Carolina withdrew from the Southeast Compact July 26, 1999, a move that prompted a lawsuit from the Compact on July 10, 2000.
South Carolina joined the Atlantic Compact (formerly the Northeast Compact) with Connecticut and New Jersey on July 1, 2000. Under the compact, South Carolina can limit the use of the Barnwell facility to the three compact members. A state law enacted in June 2000 phases out acceptance of non-compact waste through 2008.
The only other existing disposal facility for all three major classes of low-level waste is at Hanford, Washington. Controlled by the Northwest Compact, the Hanford site will continue taking waste from the neighboring Rocky Mountain Compact under a contract. States barred from access to existing disposal facilities are likely to require low-level waste generators to store their waste on site until new disposal sites are available, particularly for Class B and C waste. However, the Envirocare site in Utah could provide nationwide disposal if its Class B and C license is approved.
Regulatory Requirements. Licensing of commercial low-level waste facilities is carried out under the Atomic Energy Act by NRC or by "agreement states" with regulatory programs approved by NRC. NRC regulations governing low-level waste licenses must conform to general environmental protection standards and radiation protection guidelines issued by EPA. Transportation of low-level waste is jointly regulated by NRC and the Department of Transportation.
Most states considering new or expanded low-level waste disposal facilities, including Texas, California, and Utah are "agreement states" -- states authorized by NRC to license the handling of low-level waste and certain other radioactive materials. Most states, both agreement and non-agreement, have established substantially stricter technical requirements for low-level waste disposal than NRC's, such as banning shallow land burial and requiring concrete bunkers and other engineered barriers. NRC would issue the licenses in non-agreement states.
H.R. 4 (Tauzin)
H.R. 2072 (Berkley)
H.R. 2460 (Boehlert)
H.R. 2587 (Tauzin)
S. 388 (Murkowski)
S. 472 (Domenici)
U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Commerce. Subcommittee on Energy and Power. Status of the Department of Energy Program to Develop a Permanent Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Hearing, 106th Congress, 2nd session. June 23, 2000. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 2000. 165 p.
"Serial no. 106-151"
---- Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1999. Hearings, 106th Congress, 1st session. February 10 and March 12, 1999. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1999. 245 p.
"Serial no. 106-17"
U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Nuclear Waste Litigation. Hearing, 106th Congress, 2nd session. September 28, 2000. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 2001. 58 p.
S. Hrg. 106-918
---- Nuclear Waste Storage and Disposal Policy. Hearing, 106th Congress, 1st session. March 24, 1999. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1999. 99 p.
S. Hrg. 106-105
League of Women Voters Education Fund. The Nuclear Waste Primer. Washington, D.C., 1993. 170 p.
Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. Report to the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Secretary of Energy. April 2001. 118 p.
U.S. Department of Energy. Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management home page; covers DOE activities for disposal, transportation, and other management of civilian nuclear waste. http://www.rw.doe.gov
U.S. General Accounting Office. Nuclear Waste: Impediments to Completing the Yucca Mountain Repository Project. GAO/RCED-97-30. January 1997. 56 p.
---- Low-Level Radioactive Wastes: States Are Not Developing Disposal Facilities. GAO/RCED-99-238. September 1999. 104 p.
U.S. Geological Survey. Yucca Mountain as a Radioactive-Waste Repository. Circular 1184. 1999. 19 p.
Return to CONTENTS section of this Issue Brief.
|National Council for Science and the Environment
1725 K Street, Suite 212 - Washington, DC 20006
202-530-5810 - info@NCSEonline.org