Redistributed as a Service of the National Library for the Environment*
Civilian Nuclear Spent
Updated March 27, 1998
When Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA, P.L. 97-425), the Department of Energy (DOE) was given more than 15 years to begin taking highly radioactive spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants. But DOE proved unable to open a waste facility by the NWPA deadline of January 31, 1998. Repeated delays have pushed back the scheduled opening of a permanent underground nuclear waste repository to 2010, and DOE appears to be barred by NWPA from starting to build a temporary storage facility for commercial spent fuel until the permanent repository is licensed for construction.
Nuclear utilities and state utility regulators are urging Congress to authorize DOE to construct an interim storage facility to receive spent fuel from nuclear plants as soon as possible after the 1998 deadline. They note that spent fuel storage pools at nuclear power plants are filling up, a situation that could eventually require the construction of additional storage capacity at most of the nation's 66 operating reactor sites. In the 105th Congress, bills have been approved by the Senate (S. 104) and the House (H.R. 1270) to construct a federal interim storage facility near Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the site of DOE's planned permanent underground nuclear waste repository.
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), providing adequate spent fuel storage capacity at nuclear power plants is not a very difficult engineering problem. Nevertheless, nuclear utilities and their supporters cite several reasons for minimizing storage at reactor sites through federal central storage, such as reduced costs, increased safety, and the fulfillment of DOE's statutory obligations. Utility opponents counter that the risk of transporting spent fuel to a central storage facility would outweigh any problems created by leaving the material at reactor sites. There is also concern that development of a federal central storage site could preempt the completion of a permanent underground nuclear waste repository.
When spent nuclear fuel is first removed from a reactor, after it can no longer efficiently sustain a nuclear chain reaction, it is intensely radioactive and thermally hot. Until its radioactivity has sufficiently subsided, spent fuel must be cooled in pools of water that are adjacent to each commercial reactor. After several years, spent fuel can safely be removed from the storage pools and transferred to dry storage facilities outside the reactor building.
In dry storage systems, sufficiently cooled spent fuel is transferred from underwater storage in the pools to thick metal casks or thinner canisters, which are then drained, filled with inert gas, and sealed. The thick casks can be placed directly on a concrete pad, while the thinner canisters are placed in concrete casks or bunkers to provide radiation shielding. Such dry storage facilities have been constructed on small parcels of land at several nuclear power plants that have run out of space in their spent fuel pools. NRC has determined that dry storage of spent fuel at reactor sites is safe for at least 100 years, and generally considers dry storage safer than pool storage. (See Endnote 1.)
According to DOE, about 1,000 metric tons of spent fuel is currently in dry storage at reactor sites. That number is projected to grow to above 2,000 metric tons by the turn of the century and exceed 10,000 metric tons by 2010. (See Endnote 2.) (The tonnage refers to the weight of the original nuclear fuel, excluding metal cladding and assembly hardware.)
Although dry storage of spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites is a proven technology, nuclear utilities would prefer to move their spent fuel as soon as possible to a federal interim storage facility. Utilities are particularly concerned about incurring indefinite responsibility for maintaining on-site storage facilities a concern that has grown with each delay in DOE's schedule for opening a permanent underground waste repository.
Supporters of federal storage contend that a centralized interim storage facility would be safer and less expensive in the long run than storage at each reactor site, and it would allow DOE to meet its obligation to nuclear power users, who have been assessed billions of dollars of fees to pay for waste disposal. Utilities and state utility regulators sued DOE for determining that it could disregard the 1998 disposal deadline if storage and disposal facilities were unavailable; a federal circuit court panel agreed with the utilities that the deadline was legally binding and vacated DOE's determination July 23, 1996. (See Endnote 3.) In a subsequent decision, issued November 14, 1997, the court ordered DOE to develop an acceptable remedy for its failure to begin taking waste from plant sites as required. (See Endnote 4.)
Some utilities may want to avoid building their own dry storage facilities because of the possibility of public controversy. Several proposals for dry storage at reactor sites have drawn strong state and local opposition; tight storage capacity limits were imposed at one nuclear plant, but no dry storage facility has yet been blocked altogether. The nuclear industry also is concerned that indefinite storage at reactor sites could pose a major obstacle to future nuclear power growth.
Opponents of federal interim storage contend that those problems do not justify moving spent fuel from nuclear power plants and incurring transportation risks before a permanent disposal site is ready. Strong state and local opposition has blocked previous proposals for centralized nuclear waste storage, particularly because of concern that such storage would become permanent.
The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, a scientific advisory body established by NWPA, warned that immediate development of a DOE central storage facility could jeopardize the effort to develop a permanent underground repository. In a March 1996 report, the Board argued that a storage facility could divert scarce funding from the planned repository and could erode political support for the repository program. The Board was also concerned that locating the storage facility at the proposed repository site would make it appear that the results of future scientific studies of the site's suitability for permanent disposal had been predetermined. To minimize those problems, the Board recommended that development of a DOE central storage facility be put off for a decade or more. (See Endnote 5.)
Throughout the history of the civilian nuclear power program, which started in the 1950s, indefinite storage of spent fuel at reactor sites has never been official U.S. policy. Yet, except for a small fraction that has been reprocessed or transferred to remote storage sites, U.S. commercial spent fuel has remained in pools of water or casks at individual nuclear plants. The oldest commercial spent fuel now has been stored at plant sites for more than three decades.
In the early years, reactor spent fuel was not considered by many in government and industry to be waste material, but a source of valuable uranium and plutonium for use in new fuel. The plutonium was expected to prove most useful for fueling "breeder" reactors, which could produce spent fuel containing more plutonium than the amount that had been fissioned to produce energy. It was envisioned that extracting plutonium from reactor spent fuel would be the only way to sustain a commercial nuclear power industry without exhausting limited deposits of natural uranium.
Spent fuel was expected to cool in pools at commercial reactor sites for only a few years until being shipped to "reprocessing" plants, where the uranium and plutonium would be chemically separated from the relatively small quantity of highly radioactive "fission products" that result from the splitting of heavy nuclei. The fission products, along with other unusable radioactive material and contaminated chemicals, would become waste for permanent disposal.
All of today's nuclear power plants were designed and ordered by electric utilities when U.S. policy called for spent fuel to be sent to reprocessing plants, so most of their spent fuel pools are relatively small. But the scarcity of natural uranium, which was expected to drive demand for reprocessed uranium and plutonium, never materialized, and the economic outlook for commercial reprocessing plants dimmed during the late 1970s. At the same time, concerns that plutonium from civilian spent fuel could be used for nuclear weapons helped end federal support for commercial reprocessing.
When the United States abandoned commercial reprocessing, the "once through" nuclear fuel cycle became official policy, calling for permanent disposal of spent fuel as quickly as possible after its discharge from reactors. That policy was enacted into law with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which required DOE to begin disposing of commercial spent fuel at an underground repository by January 1998. To fund the program, utilities were required to pay a fee of one mill (a tenth of a cent) per kilowatt-hour of nuclear electricity, with the fees to be deposited in a Treasury account called the Nuclear Waste Fund. The DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) was established to run the program.
Opening a disposal facility has proven more expensive, and politically and technically more difficult, than expected. After DOE made little progress toward finding a site during the program's first five years (at least partly because of opposition from states and regions under DOE's consideration), Congress designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the sole candidate repository site in 1987 (P.L. 100-203). But opposition from the State of Nevada and other problems continued to create delays, and DOE now does not expect to begin operating a repository before 2010. The 1987 nuclear waste amendments also authorized construction of a central storage facility for commercial spent fuel but blocked DOE from building the facility until construction of the repository was licensed. No site was specified, except that it could not be located in Nevada.
Current law provides arguments for both sides of the debate over spent fuel storage. On one hand, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act establishes a statutory timetable for DOE to begin taking spent fuel from nuclear power plants, to minimize long-term storage at reactor sites. But because the law forbids DOE from taking spent fuel until a permanent repository is approved for construction, long-term storage at reactor sites appears to be the current policy by default. Congress now is being asked to determine which of those conflicting principles should take precedence, or whether other steps should be taken to mitigate the problems created by delays in the federal nuclear waste program.
A range of options is available for meeting the anticipated U.S. need for additional spent fuel storage capacity. Major alternatives include continuing the expansion of dry storage at reactor sites, construction of federal or private interim storage facilities, and reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium and uranium. Each alternative would have a different way of addressing the issues involved with long-term storage such as public opposition, costs, DOE's legal responsibilities, the future growth of nuclear power, and transportation. The major alternatives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and each would raise its own set of controversial issues.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act appears to require that commercial reactors provide sufficient on-site or other non-federal storage capacity for their own spent fuel at least until DOE receives an NRC construction permit for a permanent repository. At that point, DOE is authorized to begin accepting waste at a "monitored retrievable storage" facility. (However, the law also may penalize DOE for failing to begin receiving utility waste by 1998, as indicated by the U.S. appeals court decision noted above.)
Supporters of continued on-site storage point to NRC's confidence about the safety of long-term storage at reactor sites and contend that the problems associated with such storage could be sufficiently mitigated. Environmental and other groups also contend that on-site storage would eliminate the near-term risks of transporting highly radioactive spent fuel to a central storage facility.
To offset the added on-site storage costs under this option, it has been proposed in the 105th Congress (S. 296) that utilities receive credits to reduce their nuclear waste fees. Some utilities have requested such credits from DOE to pay for on-site dry storage facilities, although none have been granted. A drawback to that idea is that nuclear waste fee rebates or credits would reduce the total funding available for the nuclear waste program.
Although the Nuclear Waste Fund currently holds a large surplus $6.2 billion at the end of FY1997, according to DOE (See Endnote 6.) future funding could fall short and require an increase in nuclear waste fees. As a result, nuclear utilities could end up paying for rebates and credits with future fee increases. Questions about equity might also be raised by such a system; utilities with adequate storage capacity would be required to help pay, through the Nuclear Waste Fund, the storage costs of utilities that had run out of storage space.
DOE had suggested that it could partially compensate for missing the 1998 repository deadline by providing multi-purpose canisters (MPCs) to nuclear power plants that needed additional storage capacity. (See Endnote 7.) DOE planned to design the sealed canisters to fit into different shielded "overpacks" for storage, transportation, and permanent disposal. However, sharp budget cuts in FY1996 forced DOE to halt design work on an MPC system, although private-sector systems are becoming available. DOE could provide a waste fee credit to utilities purchasing private-sector MPCs in the hope that such systems would reduce the waste program's future transportation and disposal costs.
Obstacles to long-term storage posed by public opposition could be mitigated by Congress. For example, NWPA could be amended to preempt all state and local jurisdiction over spent fuel storage facilities, with NRC regulating safety and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) determining whether storage costs could be passed through to electricity customers. However, state officials would undoubtedly oppose restrictions on their regulatory authority.
Congress has several options for addressing the lack of permanent disposal facilities to meet the 1998 deadline. The simplest action might be to change the deadline to give DOE more time to develop a disposal facility. Congress also could formally establish a national policy of long-term storage at reactor sites, and modify the law to explicitly stipulate that DOE should begin taking spent fuel from reactor sites only when licensed facilities become available.
Arguments might be raised that a statutory change in the 1998 waste disposal deadline would take away vested rights for which nuclear utilities have already paid, and that utilities would be due compensation. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the federal government cannot "break its contractual promises without having to pay compensation." (See Endnote 8.) However, it is not clear that NWPA's waste disposal requirements would constitute a contract under the Supreme Court ruling. DOE did sign waste disposal contracts with utilities pursuant to NWPA, but those contracts contain an explicit delay clause. The recent appeals court decision upholding the 1998 deadline appeared to be based on statutory provisions, rather than on the contracts.
With DOE apparently blocked by law from developing a central storage facility for commercial spent fuel, it may be possible for the private sector to step in. Two private central storage facilities already exist at former reprocessing plants in New York and Illinois although neither is currently accepting additional spent fuel. Privately owned central storage facilities would require NRC licensing under the same regulations that would apply to a DOE- owned MRS facility (10 CFR Part 72).
A consortium of seven nuclear utilities applied to NRC June 25, 1997, for a license to build a commercial spent fuel storage facility on the Utah reservation of the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes. The license application would allow the storage of up to 40,000 metric tons in about 4,000 sealed canisters. (See Endnote 9.) The storage facility, which would begin receiving spent fuel beginning in 2002, would cost about $130 million to license and construct. (See Endnote 10.) The State of Utah strongly opposes the storage plan, but the Goshutes' sovereignty over their reservation appears to preclude state authority to regulate or block it.
Previous proposals for private storage facilities have required nuclear utilities to retain ownership of any spent fuel that they shipped to such sites. As a result, utilities would risk being required to take back their spent fuel if DOE were unable to begin accepting it before a storage facility closed. Although such private storage facilities would not necessarily solve nuclear utilities' long-term waste problems, they could provide an alternative for power plants that were facing state and local obstacles to the expansion of on-site storage.
A privately developed nuclear waste storage facility at the Yucca Mountain site was proposed by Sen. Grams during the 104th Congress (S. 1478). Under that plan, a consortium of nuclear utilities and other firms would receive money from the Nuclear Waste Fund to build a storage facility on DOE land at Yucca Mountain for at least 40,000 metric tons of commercial spent fuel.
Once the facility authorized by S. 1478 were licensed by NRC, it would receive spent fuel taken by DOE from reactor sites, allowing DOE to fulfill its responsibilities under its contracts with nuclear utilities. Unlike the situation at other proposed private storage facilities, therefore, spent fuel sent to the private facility under S. 1478 would have been owned by DOE and no longer been the responsibility of the utilities that generated it. DOE also would assume ownership of the storage facility before decommissioning, with costs to be paid from the Nuclear Waste Fund.
Nuclear utilities and state regulators are urging Congress to reverse its 1987 waste storage policy and authorize DOE to immediately construct an interim storage facility at Yucca Mountain. Under current law, DOE cannot build a central storage facility until NRC grants a construction permit for a permanent repository, and is prohibited from siting the facility in Nevada. The nuclear industry and its supporters argue that a Nevada storage facility represents the best hope for DOE to begin taking spent fuel from nuclear power plants within a few years after the 1998 deadline.
Storage at Yucca Mountain. In the 105th Congress, legislation to authorize a DOE storage facility at the Nevada Test Site near Yucca Mountain was approved by the House on October 30, 1997 (H.R. 1270, H.Rept. 105-290). The House bill would require DOE to begin receiving waste at the storage facility in 2002, clearing away regulatory, logistical, and legal obstacles that might prevent DOE from meeting that deadline. The storage facility authorized by the committee bill would be developed and licensed in two phases. The first phase would consist of relatively simple dry-storage facilities for up to 10,000 metric tons of spent fuel and would be licensed for 20 years. In the second phase, the facility could be expanded to hold up to 40,000 metric tons and be licensed for a renewable term of 100 years.
A similar bill (S. 104, S.Rept. 105-10) was passed by the Senate April 15, 1997. The Senate-passed bill would require the President to determine the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site for a permanent underground repository by 1999, before a license application could be submitted for an interim surface storage facility at the site. If the site were declared suitable for the permanent repository, temporary storage could begin by 2002. If not, there would be a two-year moratorium on the project to allow for congressional approval of an alternative interim storage site. If no alternative were approved, then interim storage would proceed at Yucca Mountain. (For more details of the House and Senate bills, see CRS Issue Brief 92059, Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal.)
By focusing on areas near Yucca Mountain, the bills are attempting to address some of the concerns that prompted Congress in 1987 to prohibit DOE from opening a storage facility before beginning construction of a permanent repository in particular, the concern that a storage facility could become permanent. Because Yucca Mountain is intended to be the permanent disposal site if NRC issues a license, it could be argued that long-term storage would impose a relatively low additional burden. Supporters of Yucca Mountain storage also contend that the remote site is appropriate for central storage of highly radioactive waste and that the site would minimize the additional transportation risk and expense that would be needed to move the stored waste into the Yucca Mountain permanent repository, if it is built as planned.
A potential variation on the Yucca Mountain storage plan would require DOE to store commercial spent fuel underground at the site rather than in surface storage facilities. Essentially, DOE would begin building and loading the Yucca Mountain repository before it was licensed for permanent disposal. Once the repository was licensed, the stored waste could remain permanently, and DOE would have begun receiving waste earlier than currently planned without having to construct a large surface storage facility. Studying the effects of underground stored nuclear waste might also prove helpful to DOE in preparing a repository license application. If the repository ultimately failed to receive a license, alternative facilities could be developed while the waste remained securely stored in Yucca Mountain.
Potential objections to the underground storage idea primarily involve time and cost. It would almost certainly take DOE several more years to prepare underground storage facilities at Yucca Mountain than to open a surface facility of the type already existing at nuclear power plants. Although cost savings could be achieved by reducing the need for surface storage facilities (primarily concrete structures for radiation shielding), the emplacement of large quantities of radioactive material in underground chambers could increase the cost of DOE's ongoing repository studies by necessitating radiological health controls and other safety measures. Moreover, DOE has not developed waste containers or determined the optimum container configuration and spacing for permanent disposal, so waste stored underground probably would have to be repackaged and moved into new tunnels after the permanent repository was licensed.
Storing waste at Yucca Mountain could reduce general public confidence in the safety of permanent disposal at the site, because it might appear that the federal government had prejudged the site's suitability for a repository before completing the necessary scientific evaluations. Such concerns could be exacerbated by a decision to store nuclear waste underground at Yucca Mountain before a repository were licensed by NRC.
Accusations of federal prejudgment have already been prompted by Congress' 1987 selection of Yucca Mountain as the sole repository candidate site. State officials in Nevada have long contended that the potential for earthquakes, volcanoes, and other hazards at Yucca Mountain render the site scientifically unsuitable for a repository, although DOE maintains that no insurmountable problems with the site have yet been found. The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board recently concurred with DOE's opinion. (See Endnote 11.)
The Clinton Administration's position is that interim storage should not be established at Yucca Mountain until DOE completes a technical viability determination expected in 1998. DOE's most recent Civilian Radioactive Waste Program Plan calls for construction of an interim storage facility to begin in 2001 and for waste to be received at the selected site in 2002. The plan notes that the proposed interim storage schedule could not be implemented without modifying NWPA's current restrictions on DOE waste storage. (See Endnote 12.)
The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board recently warned that immediate efforts to develop an interim storage facility could reduce the resources available for the permanent repository program. Nevada's Lincoln County and City of Caliente have offered a site a few hundred miles northeast of Yucca Mountain for DOE to store up to 15,000 metric tons of spent fuel. The proposal, issued February 21, 1995, calls for DOE to pay the two localities up to $30 million per year and provide other benefits. Under the two nuclear waste bills, the Lincoln County site, which is along a main railway, would be used for transferring waste casks from rail cars to trucks for final transport to the Yucca Mountain site.
Alternative Approaches. Various nuclear-related DOE installations other than Yucca Mountain also have been suggested as storage sites for commercial spent fuel. DOE already is receiving U.S.-origin spent fuel from foreign research reactors at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, although less than 20 metric tons is involved in that program. (See Endnote 13.) Sen. Murkowski, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, suggested in a floor statement May 25, 1995, that DOE store commercial spent fuel at its Savannah River and Hanford, Washington, nuclear installations.
The Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) Commission, a temporary three-member panel established by the 1987 NWPA amendments, recommended that Congress authorize two storage facilities at DOE sites. Issued in 1989, the MRS Commission's report proposed a low- capacity emergency storage facility and a larger, user-funded storage facility instead of the repository-linked MRS facility authorized by NWPA.
The proposed emergency storage facility would be limited to 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel and would be built at a DOE nuclear site with spent-fuel handling experience. The estimated $300-$400 million facility would be large enough to accept all the waste from one or more nuclear plants if they suffered accidents that required their spent-fuel pools to be emptied. Noting that such a facility would provide emergency backup for all nuclear power plants, the Commission recommended that its costs be paid by all nuclear utilities through the Nuclear Waste Fund.
The Commission's proposed user-funded, NRC-licensed storage facility would hold up to 5,000 metric tons of spent fuel and would provide utilities an alternative to on-site storage. Users of such a facility would primarily consist of utilities wanting to reduce spent-fuel monitoring costs at decommissioned reactors, according to the MRS Commission report, which estimates such costs at $2-$3 million annually. Such a facility also could take spent fuel from reactors with problems providing sufficient on-site storage. As the name implies, the $500-$600 million user-funded storage facility would be built only if enough utilities were willing to sign contracts to cover its cost. The MRS Commission reasoned that only users should pay for such a facility because it would be inequitable to impose part of its costs on utilities that were willing to pay for storing their waste on-site. (See Endnote 14.)
Congressional authorization of a "small, limited-capacity backup storage facility" was recently suggested by the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board as "one way to accommodate the storage needs of any utilities that, for one reason or another, cannot continue to store their own spent fuel." (See Endnote 15.)
The primary obstacle to such facilities, even the relatively small ones proposed by the MRS Commission, would be the type of regional opposition that blocked DOE's 1986 proposal for an MRS facility in Tennessee. Without direct linkages to the repository, as imposed by Congress in 1987, a proposed storage facility is vulnerable to arguments that it could become permanent.
Reassessing current U.S. policy and sending spent nuclear fuel to reprocessing plants has been suggested as an alternative to storing the material at reactor sites or a central facility. Possible reprocessing locations include a newly constructed facility in Great Britain and underused defense reprocessing facilities at DOE's Savannah River Site. Reprocessing of spent fuel could alleviate near-term storage problems and extract uranium and plutonium for use in new nuclear fuel. However, the highly radioactive waste produced by reprocessing would still require long- term storage and disposal, and the separation of plutonium would probably raise serious concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation.
British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) has proposed that spent fuel from nuclear power plants with severe on-site storage problems be shipped to BNFL's new Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) in northern England. (See Endnote 16.) BNFL already is receiving spent fuel shipments from Japan and other countries, using a fleet of special ships. Under the BNFL proposal, DOE could send U.S. spent fuel to THORP to be stored for at least a decade and then reprocessed. The storage and reprocessing cost of $1 million per metric ton would be paid from the Nuclear Waste Fund. If DOE storage and disposal facilities became available before the U.S. spent fuel was reprocessed, the material could be returned and the reprocessing contract terminated. DOE would pay a termination fee covering BNFL's transportation and storage costs.
If the U.S. spent fuel were reprocessed, the plutonium (about 1 percent) and uranium (about 95 percent) would be separated from highly radioactive waste products. The resulting liquid high-level waste would be vitrified dissolved in molten glass and poured into stainless steel canisters at a new facility that adjoins THORP. The uranium, plutonium, and waste canisters would then be returned to DOE, or, for an additional fee, BNFL could produce mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel from the plutonium and some of the uranium. Most U.S. nuclear plants could load at least a third of their reactor cores with MOX fuel.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee included a provision in a nuclear waste bill in the 104th Congress (S. 1271) that could have been used to implement the BNFL reprocessing proposal. Utilities lacking spent fuel storage space would have been authorized to contract for "interim storage and conditioning" with "qualified entities." DOE would take title to "all spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste resulting from the treatment of that fuel." However, the controversial provision was dropped from the final bill as passed by the Senate (S. 1936).
A report by the operator of the Savannah River Site suggested that the site's reprocessing facilities, which formerly extracted highly enriched uranium and plutonium primarily for defense needs, could economically reprocess spent fuel from commercial reactors. A new vitrification plant at the site could solidify the resulting high-level waste for disposal. However, questions have arisen about the ability of the 40-year-old SRS reprocessing facilities to meet current safety standards. (See Endnote 17.)
Reprocessing costs are intended to be offset at least partly by the value of the uranium and plutonium extracted from spent fuel, a value that depends primarily on the market price of newly mined uranium. Uranium has been relatively inexpensive since the early 1980s, but reprocessing supporters expect prices to rise in the future. The value of reprocessed uranium is difficult to assess. On the downside, reprocessed uranium contains a relatively high percentage of undesirable uranium isotopes and may be slightly contaminated with highly radioactive residues. However, it also usually has a higher percentage of the crucial isotope uranium-235 than found in natural uranium.
Reprocessing proponents maintain that waste disposal costs would be lowered by the reduction in waste volume and by the recycling of plutonium, which poses a long-term radioactive hazard. However, the waste-management benefits of reprocessing remain largely undemonstrated. Most of the near-term radioactivity and heat in spent fuel would remain in the vitrified high-level waste, so the separation between waste canisters in a repository (and therefore total acreage requirements) might not be significantly reduced. Also, because plutonium can be recycled only a few times in today's reactors before becoming unusable, some reprocessed plutonium would eventually require permanent disposal unless advanced reactor technology became commercialized.
Reprocessing of U.S. commercial reactor fuel would require a substantial change in U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy. Although the Clinton Administration does not attempt to block the United States' economically advanced allies from reprocessing civilian spent fuel, it "does not encourage the civil use of plutonium and, accordingly, does not itself engage in plutonium reprocessing for either nuclear power or nuclear explosive purposes." (See Endnote 18.) Supporters of the Administration policy contend that any U.S. reprocessing would undermine efforts to prevent non-nuclear-weapons nations from building plutonium stockpiles.
1. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Waste Confidence Decision Review. 55 Federal Register 38508. September 18, 1990.
2. U.S. Department of Energy. Spent Fuel Storage Requirements 1994-2042. DOE/RW-0431-Rev. 1. June 1995. P. B.78
3. Indiana Michigan Power Company, et al., v. Department of Energy and United States of America. U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit. Docket Nos. 95-1279, 95-1321, 95-1463. Decided July 23, 1996.
4. Northern States Power Company, et al., v. U.S. Department of Energy and United States of America. U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit. Docket Nos. 97-1064, 97-1065, 97- 1370, 97-1398. Decided November 14, 1997.
5. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. Disposal and Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel Finding the Right Balance. March 1996. P. ix.
6. Nuclear Waste Fund Status. Table provided by Nick DiNunzio, U.S. Department of Energy, March 18, 1998.
7. U.S. Department of Energy. Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. Notice of Inquiry: Waste Acceptance Issues. Federal Register. May 25, 1994. P. 27007.
8. United States v. Winstar Corp., 116 S.Ct. 2432 (July 1, 1996).
9. "Utilities Apply to NRC to Site Dry Cask Storage Facility on Utah Reservation of Skull Valley Goshutes." SpentFuel. June 30, 1997. P. 1
10. Behrens, Lira. "Utility Coalition Asks NRC to License Private Waste Storage Facility." Inside Energy/with Federal Lands. June 30, 1997. P. 5
11. U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. Letter to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary from Review Board Chairman John E. Cantlon. Feb. 23, 1996.
12. U.S. Department of Energy. Draft Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Program Plan, Revision 1. DOE/RW-0458, Revision 1. May 1996. P. 22.
13. U.S. Department of Energy. Draft Environmental Impact Statement on a Proposed Nuclear Weapons Nonproliferation Policy Concerning Foreign Research Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel. DOE/EIS-0218D. March 1995. P. 13.
14. Monitored Retrievable Storage Review Commission. Report to Congress. Washington. November 1989.
15. U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. Op. Cit.
16. BNFL Inc. Issues for BNFL's Congressional Staff Tour. August 1995.
17. Kramer, David. Report by SRS Contractor Appears to Advocate Reprocessing at Site. Inside Energy/with Federal Lands. January 8, 1996. P. 8.
18. White House, Office of the Press Secretary. Fact Sheet: Non- Proliferation and Export Control Policy. Sept. 27, 1993.
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