A report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) today—and presented at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the Energy Department’s role in managing civilian radioactive waste—concludes that uncertainties exist about the direction of the nation’s policy for nuclear waste disposal.

In its 19-page report, “Nuclear Waste: Disposal Challenges and Lessons Learned from Yucca Mountain,” the GAO sets out to uncover where the Yucca Mountain permanent nuclear waste repository stands, where the nation’s policy for nuclear waste disposal is headed, and what can be learned from previous nuclear waste management efforts.

The GAO says that to date, the U.S. has generated more than 75,000  metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste at 80 sites in 35 states—and that number will more than double by 2055. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) required the Department of Energy (DOE) to investigate a geologic repository for nuclear waste, and in 1987, NWPA was amended to allow the DOE to focus solely on the repository in Nevada.

But while the DOE submitted an application for the repository to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2008, the agency sought to withdraw it from the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board in March 2010. “However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) or the courts—as a result of federal lawsuits—might compel DOE to resume the licensing process,” the GAO says. 

According to the congressional investigative arm, the DOE did not cite technical or safety issues, stating only that “Yucca Mountain is not a workable option because of a lack of public acceptance by the people of Nevada.” In June 2010, the board denied the DOE’s motion to withdraw the application, ruling that NWPA requires the DOE to continue the licensing effort, but as of May 26, 2011, “no review has been announced,” the GAO says. Neither have rulings been made on lawsuits by states and local governments in federal court against the DOE and NRC to stop the repository termination. This uncertainty forced the DOE to shut down the program in September and establish a Blue Ribbon Commission to evaluate alternatives.

Regarding the status of the project today, “Virtually all personal property and facilities relating to the project have been either been disposed of or reassigned, and the site is in ‘cold standby’ status,” as the DOE’s Inspector General Gregory Friedman told the House committee today. “As you are aware, the Department’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget included no funding for the Yucca Mountain Project. Additionally, the Department disbanded the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, whose programmatic mission was the management and disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.”

Waste Storage Options Are Challenging

In its report, the GAO outlines three primary waste storage options—which offer benefits but also “challenges, including high costs.” Options include continued onsite or centralized storage, which the agency said may allow “time for research into new approaches that might have wider public acceptance than the Yucca Mountain permanent repository.”

Onsite storage may require less effort to implement, but it could trigger financial liabilities as a result of industry lawsuits stemming from the DOE’s failure to accept nuclear waste in 1998, the GAO says. “The federal government has already paid $956 million, and future liabilities are estimated to be at least $15.4 billion through 2020.”

Centralized interim storage, on the other hand, will be challenging because the DOE says it has “no authority to implement this option,” the GAO says. The final option—a geologic repository such as Yucca Mountain—“is widely considered the only currently feasible option for permanently disposing of nuclear waste,” but “restarting the search [for a potential site] would likely take decades and cost billions of dollars,” the GAO concludes.

Lessons Learned

Two “broad” lessons can be learned from past nuclear waste management efforts, the GAO suggests. One is that “transparency, economic incentives, and education are important tools for gaining public acceptance.” The other is that any chosen waste management strategy should have “consistent policy, funding, and leadership”—especially because the process could take decades, the GAO says.

As subcommittees of the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) recommended earlier last month, the GAO concludes that one way to achieve this is with the establishment of an “independent organization with a more predictable funding mechanism” than the DOE to oversee nuclear waste management.

The idea of an independent entity with assured access to the Nuclear Waste Fund was reiterated at the House Committee hearing by Greg White, commissioner of the Michigan Public Service Commission, speaking on behalf of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). White said he recognized the “myriad of obstacles, technical, regulatory, managerial, legal, and political in trying to develop a repository,” but he rated the DOE’s performance a “C minus.”

White also said—in a point repeated by NARUC in a press release—that the Nuclear Waste Fund “must be altered” as the federal government considers a new nuclear waste strategy. Despite collecting more than $31 billion since 1983 from consumers into the Nuclear Waste Fund, the U.S. is no closer to resolving the nuclear-waste program than it was almost 30 years ago, White said.

“If the Nuclear Waste Fund is going to be the means of implementing a revitalized waste program, whether by [the Energy Department] or a new organization, the Fund needs to be reformed to serve the purpose it was created for—to enable the users of nuclear power to pay for the disposal of the waste it produces,” White said.

In fact, the only aspect of the nuclear program that has worked as intended is the collection of the fees themselves, he said. Almost every other element of the program has either been delayed or indefinitely postponed, he said, referring to the Department of Energy’s efforts to scrap the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository.

“Regardless of what storage, transportation or disposal solutions [the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future] may recommend, they will need certain and reliable financing support… Yucca Mountain did not fail for lack of utilities and their ratepayers making the payments into the Nuclear Waste Fund,” White said.

Sources: POWERnews, GAO, NARUC, DOE