UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

92059: Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal

Updated November 21, 1996

Mark Holt
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division





Other Programs
Nuclear Spent Fuel Legislation
Interim Storage Facility
Permanent Underground Repository
Program Funding
Preemption of Other Laws
Characteristics of Nuclear Waste
Spent Nuclear Fuel
Commercial Low-level Waste
Other Civilian Radioactive Waste
Current Policy and Regulation
Spent Nuclear Fuel
Current Program
Waste Facility Schedules
Interim Storage
Regulatory Requirements
Alternative Technologies
Low-level Radioactive Waste
Current Policy
Regulatory Requirements





Management of civilian radioactive waste has posed difficult issues for Congress since the beginning of the nuclear power industry in the 1950s. Concern about safety, health, and the environment has continued to rise as new disposal facilities for all types of radioactive waste have moved into the development and demonstration stage in recent years.

Civilian radioactive waste ranges from the highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants to mildly radioactive uranium mill tailings 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. By volume, low-level waste overwhelmingly predominates, but nearly all the radioactivity in commercial waste is found in spent fuel.

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. 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. Studies to answer those questions will involve years of underground testing.

NWPA's goal for loading waste into the repository is 1998, but DOE does not expect to open the facility until 2010 at the earliest. Funding for FY1997 totals $382 million, $18 million below the Administration's request. The appropriations bill for the program requires DOE to complete a "viability assessment" of the Yucca Mountain site by Sept. 30, 1998.

The 104th Congress considered legislation (H.R. 1020, S. 1936) that would have required DOE to open an interim waste storage facility near Yucca Mountain soon after 1998. The Senate passed its version July 31, 1996, but the House, facing a veto threat, did not take it up. The Clinton Administration opposed building an interim waste facility at Yucca Mountain before the site had been found viable for a permanent repository.

Low-level waste is a state disposal responsibility under the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980. States are authorized to form regional disposal compacts that, upon approval by Congress, were allowed to restrict the import of low-level waste from states outside those compacts beginning in 1993.

Nine such compacts have been approved by Congress. But only two commercial low-level waste sites are currently operating, in the states of Washington and South Carolina, and the Washington facility is accepting waste just from within the Northwest and Rocky Mountain regional compacts. A planned disposal facility in California cannot begin operating until the site is transferred to the State from the Department of the Interior, which is requiring additional suitability tests before making a final decision.


The House adjourned sine die October 4 without taking up legislation to overhaul the Department of Energy (DOE) civilian nuclear waste disposal program. A bill (H.R. 1020) would have required DOE to build a nuclear waste interim storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, site of a planned permanent underground nuclear waste repository. The Senate had approved its version of the waste bill (S. 1936) by a vote of 63-37 on July 31. The legislation faced an Administration veto threat for designating Yucca Mountain as a waste storage site before DOE had found the site "viable" for a permanent repository.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided July 23 that current law requires DOE to begin disposing of nuclear waste by 1998. The court decision reverses a previous DOE determination that the 1998 statutory deadline would not be legally binding if a disposal facility was not yet available. However, the court called it "premature to determine the appropriate remedy" for any failure by DOE to begin waste disposal by 1998.

The President on September 30 signed an FY1997 funding bill for the DOE civilian nuclear waste program. The Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill for FY1997 (H.R. 1020 or BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS


Nuclear waste has often been called the Achilles' heel of the nuclear power industry; much opposition to 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, underground flooding, nuclear chain reactions, and fossil fuel and mineral deposits that might encourage future human intrusion.

DOE contends that the evidence so far indicates that Yucca Mountain is likely to prove suitable and that studies of the site should continue. 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.

The safety of geologic disposal of highly radioactive waste, as planned in the United States, depends primarily 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 geologic behavior for the 10,000-year period (or even longer) 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. Threats by those states to close the facilities led to congressional authorization of regional compacts for low-level waste disposal in 1985, although no new disposal sites have yet been opened.

Nuclear Spent Fuel Legislation

Nuclear utilities, which pay for most of the high-level waste disposal program through a fee on nuclear power, have grown increasingly concerned about the program's slow progress. Although some of the delays have been blamed on poor program management, DOE contends that tight funding has recently been a major barrier. DOE cannot spend the nuclear industry's nuclear waste fees without congressional approval, and until FY1995 the President had requested and Congress has appropriated only about half the fees collected. After the FY1995 boost, funding was sharply reduced in FY1996 and remains about the same in FY1997.

Nuclear utilities and state officials filed two lawsuits in June 1994 to force DOE to meet the January 1998 deadline for starting to take nuclear waste from commercial reactor sites. DOE issued a determination May 3, 1995, that the 1998 deadline would not be legally binding if storage or disposal facilities were not ready in time. Under current law, DOE cannot begin building a "monitored retrievable storage" (MRS) facility until a permanent repository receives a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) construction permit, which is not expected until late 2004 at the earliest.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided in favor of the utilities July 23, 1996, reversing DOE's determination that the 1998 deadline would not be binding if facilities were not available. However, the court called it "premature to determine the appropriate remedy" for DOE's anticipated failure to meet the 1998 statutory deadline. The case is Indiana Michigan Power Company, et al., v. Department of Energy and United States of America.

The Minnesota Department of Public Service recommended June 12, 1996, that nuclear waste fees collected in the state be placed in escrow until DOE began taking waste from reactor sites.

The nuclear industry and its supporters want Congress to require DOE to build an interim storage facility that could begin receiving spent fuel from nuclear power plants as soon after the 1998 deadline as possible. Such a facility could reduce spent fuel storage costs, increase safety, and fulfill the federal government's legal obligations, supporters contend (see Nuclear Energy Institute perspective at http://www.nei.org/main/pressrm/facts/hlw.htm). 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).

The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, an independent scientific advisory body established by NWPA, issued a report in March 1996 that found "no compelling technical or safety reason to move spent fuel to a centralized storage facility for the next few years." The Board recommended that development of an interim storage facility be put off for about a decade so that DOE could continue focusing on the planned permanent underground repository at Yucca Mountain. (For more background on nuclear waste storage, see CRS Report 96-212, Civilian Nuclear Spent Fuel Temporary Storage Options.)

Legislation to rewrite NWPA and require construction of an interim storage facility (S. 1936, H.R. 1020) was considered in the 104th Congress but was not enacted. The Senate passed S. 1936 on July 31, 1996, by 63-37; the bill was a substitute for S. 1271, approved 12-6 by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on March 13, 1996 (H.Rept. 104-254, pt. 1). Facing a veto threat, the measure was never brought to the House floor. In addition to mandating interim storage, the bills would have established new licensing standards for a permanent underground repository, revised the program's funding mechanism, and made other program modifications.

Interim Storage Facility. H.R. 1020 and S. 1936 would have required DOE to construct a nuclear waste interim storage facility on the Nevada Test Site, near the planned Yucca Mountain repository. They would have cleared away several potential regulatory, logistical, and other obstacles to the interim storage facility; the House committee bill would have required DOE to begin receiving waste at the storage site by January 31, 1998, while the Senate bill would have given the Department until November 30, 1999. The interim storage facility could have received spent fuel from nuclear power plants, foreign research reactors, and naval reactors, as well as high-level radioactive waste from nuclear weapons production.

The bills would have required development of the Nevada interim storage facility in two phases. The first phase of the project was to receive up to 10,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel under H.R. 1020 and 15,000 metric tons under S. 1936; it would have been licensed by NRC for a 20-year period. The second phase was to be licensed for a renewable term of up to 100 years, expanding storage capacity to 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel under H.R. 1020 and 40,000-60,000 metric tons in S. 1936. About 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel is projected to be generated by today's nuclear power plants through the end of their 40-year operating licenses.

The Clinton Administration contends that Yucca Mountain should not be designated as a storage site before DOE has determined the site's viability for a permanent repository, a finding currently anticipated in 1998. In an effort to address that concern, S. 1936 as passed by the Senate would have prevented DOE from starting construction of an interim storage facility near Yucca Mountain before December 31, 1998, when the bill required the President to determine whether the site was unsuitable for a repository. That determination was to be "based on a preponderance of the information available at such time;" DOE's existing site suitability guidelines for the permanent repository would have been revoked by both bills.

If the President had found Yucca Mountain unsuitable for a repository, he would then have had 18 months to designate a site for an interim storage facility, under S. 1936. If no site were designated and approved by Congress by the end of 2000, DOE would have had to begin constructing an interim storage facility at the Yucca Mountain site. Those provisions did not satisfy the White House, which reiterated its veto threat in a letter to Senate leaders July 15, 1996.

Permanent Underground Repository. DOE's efforts to develop a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain were to continue under the two bills. H.R. 1020 would have required DOE to apply to NRC for repository construction authorization by December 31, 2001, and S. 1936 a month later. The House committee bill would have set January 17, 2010, as the goal for repository operation.

NRC would have been required by both bills to write new regulations for the repository based solely on the average radiation dose expected to be received by a member of the general population around Yucca Mountain; the average dose would be limited to 100 millirems, about a third of average individual exposure in the United States. Under S. 1936, NRC or EPA could have reduced the exposure limit if they found the statutory standard "would constitute an unreasonable risk to health and safety." H.R. 1020 would have eliminated the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set radiation protection standards for the planned Yucca Mountain repository, blocking EPA standards now in preparation pursuant to the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

Under the Senate bill, NRC was to issue a license based on "reasonable assurance" that the repository would meet the 100 millirem performance standard during its first 1,000 years of operation; additional analysis would have been conducted of likely repository performance through 10,000 years. H.R. 1020 would have required reasonable assurance that the standard would be met through 1,000 years and that the repository would probably comply through 10,000 years. Because of the long decay period for some radioactive isotopes in nuclear waste, EPA has considered a compliance period as long as 100,000 years for nuclear waste repositories.

EPA strongly objects to proposals to eliminate its standard-setting authority for Yucca Mountain and to the standards that would be established by the legislation. In an April 29, 1996, letter to Senate Minority Leader Daschle, EPA Administrator Carol Browner called the proposed standards "less protective than other U.S. standards and international advisory body recommendations."

Program Funding. The funding mechanism for the nuclear waste program would have been modified by H.R. 1020 and S. 1936. Nuclear utilities currently must contribute to the Nuclear Waste Fund a fixed annual fee of a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour generated, a fee that can be changed by the Secretary of Energy after congressional review. Congress makes annual appropriations from the Nuclear Waste Fund to DOE; previously the annual utility payments have greatly exceeded annual appropriations, leading to a large surplus that has reduced the federal deficit.

H.R. 1020 would have left the existing balance of about $5 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund but required utilities in the future to pay only the amount appropriated from the fund each year; the new variable annual fee was to average no higher than the current fee through 2010. The Congressional Budget Office determined August 18, 1995, that replacing the current mandatory nuclear waste fee with a discretionary fee based on appropriations could cost the federal government up to $600 million per year (the annual amount currently collected). To avoid violating the Budget Act's "pay as you go" requirements, $600 million a year in offsetting receipts or mandatory budget cuts was necessary.

Under S. 1936, annual fees would have equaled annual appropriations for the Nuclear Waste Fund beginning in FY2003 -- except that they could rise no higher than the current level. To prevent budget problems, the bill would have required utilities to hand over all deferred payments to the Nuclear Waste Fund by the end of FY2002. Such deferred payments, currently totalling about $2 billion with interest, were allowed for spent fuel generated before enactment of NWPA.

Preemption of Other Laws. S. 1936 contained a general preemption of all federal, state and local requirements that were "inconsistent with or duplicative of" the Atomic Energy Act and NWPA. H.R. 1020, as approved by committee, specified that the Atomic Energy Act and Nuclear Waste Policy Act should supersede any inconsistent or duplicative requirements of any other law. State and local requirements would be preempted if they posed an obstacle to fulfilling the goals of NWPA.

Characteristics of Nuclear Waste

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. 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. Some types of low-level waste can be more radioactive than some types of high-level waste.

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 nonradioactive 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).

Spent Nuclear Fuel

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 30,000 metric tons of spent fuel discharged from U.S. commercial nuclear reactors through 1995 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 40,000 metric tons by the turn of the century, 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 20 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.

Commercial Low-level Waste

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 25,000 cubic meters of commercial low-level waste was shipped to disposal sites in 1994. The volume of commercial low-level radioactive waste peaked in 1980 and fell sharply after the mid-1980s, primarily because of escalating disposal fees.

In 1993, nuclear utilities generated slightly more than half of commercially disposed low-level waste volumes, industrial activities accounted for slightly more than a third, government for less than 10%, academic activities for about 2%, and medical institutions for less than 1%, according to DOE. The vast majority of that material, nearly 95%, consisted of the least hazardous "Class A" waste, while less than 2% was composed of the most hazardous "Class C" material. Medium-level "Class B" waste accounted for the rest, about 3%.

By total radioactivity, utility low-level waste accounts for more than 95% and medical waste drops below a tenth of a percent. The tiny volume of Class C waste contains the overwhelming majority of radioactivity in all low-level waste. Nuclear utilities' share of total volume and radioactivity is expected to rise even higher 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.

Other Civilian Radioactive Waste

Different management challenges are posed by huge quantities of uranium mill tailings, contaminated soil, naturally occurring radioactive material, and other commercial radioactive waste. These types of waste typically have very low radioactivity and were once believed to pose little or no hazard; mill tailings, for example, were sometimes used as fill and building material. But special disposal measures are now judged necessary.

About 118 million cubic meters of uranium mill tailings have been produced in the United States, 25 times the total volume of spent fuel, high-level waste, and low-level waste. Uranium mill tailings contain low concentrations of uranium residues and radium, which can contaminate groundwater and generate radioactive radon gas. Uranium in the United States was produced primarily for military purposes through 1964, and mostly for civilian nuclear power thereafter.

The largest potential category of commercial radioactive waste consists of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM), primarily involving radioactive elements not produced in reactors or used in the nuclear fuel cycle, such as radium. Environmental regulation of the wide variety of NORM waste, which is outside NRC jurisdiction, is a growing issue.

Current Policy and Regulation

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 steadily more stringent in line with overall national environmental policy and heightened concerns about the hazards of radioactivity.

Spent Nuclear Fuel

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 (see Tunnel Machine Boring Progress Summary at http://www.ymp.gov/wha_news/tbmprog.htm). The ESF is to consist of a pair of mile-long underground ramps at the north and south ends of the planned repository, leading down about 1,000 feet to the level where the waste is to be emplaced. At least five miles of ramps and tunnels, or "drifts," are to be excavated altogether during the study phase. By early September 1996, the exploratory tunnel extended 4 miles into the mountain, and several side alcoves for scientific studies had begun.

In response to the FY1996 budget cut, DOE's May 1996 revised waste program is aimed at opening the repository by 2010 under currently anticipated long-term funding constraints. The revised program relies on a simplified safety assessment of the Yucca Mountain site that could establish the basis for repository compliance with all major regulatory hurdles.

Under the revised program plan, DOE is to complete a "viability assessment" of Yucca Mountain by FY1998, followed by an environmental impact statement in 2000. If the site appears acceptable, DOE would recommend approval by the President in 2001 and, with presidential approval, submit a license application to NRC in 2002. 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 2071, by which time the program's total cost (in 1994 dollars) will have reached $33 billion, according to a September 1995 DOE estimate.

Interim Storage. Delays in the repository program have prompted renewed interest in an interim storage facility. Without such interim storage, large amounts of additional storage space must be constructed at nuclear power plant sites, as discussed in the previous section. But current law sharply limits the usefulness of the MRS facility as an interim storage site, because the longer the repository is delayed, the longer the MRS must be delayed as well.

To overcome that obstacle, the Mescalero Apache Indian Tribe is considering the development of its own spent fuel storage facility without DOE assistance or congressional approval. A consortium of nuclear utilities worked with the tribe for 2 years on the project but broke off negotiations April 16, 1996. Tribal officials said they would pursue other partners in the project, while the utility consortium announced it would attempt to find other locations for a storage facility.

As discussed above, the 104th Congress considered legislation to establish an interim storage site at Yucca Mountain. The Clinton Administration strongly opposes designating Yucca Mountain as an interim storage site before completion of the planned 1998 viability assessment. However, DOE's May 1996 revised program plan assumes that congressional authorization will be enacted for work on an interim storage facility to begin after the viability assessment, and that an interim storage facility can begin receiving spent fuel in 2002.

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 must 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. 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 currently under revision 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 inflict 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 EPA base its Yucca Mountain standards on risk to individuals near the repository, rather than on releases of radioactive material or on radioactive doses. Previous EPA regulations established release limits, and H.R. 1020 and S. 1936 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.

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, converting them to faster-decaying fission products. Other concepts for destroying long-lived radionuclides would bombard nuclear waste with neutrons generated by powerful particle accelerators. Spent nuclear fuel could also be reprocessed to extract plutonium and uranium to make new fuel for existing commercial reactors, although multiple recycles of such fuel must overcome a number of technical obstacles.

NAS in March 1996 issued a study of technologies for reducing the long-term hazard of nuclear waste. The study, Nuclear Wastes: Technologies for Separations and Transmutation, concluded that such technology would not eliminate the need for a permanent high-level waste repository but could reduce total capacity requirements. However, supporters of advanced nuclear technology contend that the NAS study understated the potential benefits.

Funding. Congress sharply cut funding for the DOE nuclear waste disposal program in FY1996 and reserved $85 million of the program's appropriation for an interim storage facility, if authorized by subsequent legislation such as H.R. 1020 and S. 1936. FY1997 funding for the program was set at $382 million by the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill signed by the President September 30, 1996 (P.L. 104-206). That level is $18 million below the Administration request, but House language that would have made the funding contingent on the enactment of authorizing legislation was dropped by the conference report (H.Rept. 104-782).

***TABLE or GRAPHIC not shown here***

Nuclear utilities pay an annual fee to the Nuclear Waste Fund to cover the disposal costs of civilian nuclear spent fuel, but DOE cannot spend the money in the fund until it is appropriated by Congress, which also appropriates about $100-$200 million a year from general revenues to pay for disposal of high-level defense waste. Through the end of FY1995, nuclear waste fees and interest totaled about $9.5 billion, of which about $4.4 billion had been appropriated to the waste disposal program, according to DOE. Another $2 billion was owed by utilities for spent fuel generated before 1982.

Low-level Radioactive Waste

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 (now two) 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. Other states and regions were supposed to have opened their own disposal sites by the 1992 deadline.

Despite that deadline, no new disposal sites have been opened; a California site serving California, Arizona, North Dakota, and South Dakota appears to have made the most progress. California Governor Pete Wilson approved an operating permit for the Ward Valley, California, site September 16, 1993. The final major obstacle to beginning construction of the disposal facility is the transfer of the site, located on federal land, from the federal government to the state.

To help him make a decision on the requested land transfer, Interior Secretary Babbitt asked the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences to determine the validity of seven technical concerns that had been raised about the Ward Valley site. The NAS report, released May 11, 1995, found little validity in most of those concerns, which include potential water infiltration at the site, groundwater contamination, and contamination of the Colorado River. But the report recommended further data collection and site monitoring.

The Department of the Interior announced February 14, 1996, that the Ward Valley transfer would be delayed at least a year for further studies of the movement of radioactive tritium at the site. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved a bill (S. 1596) March 13, 1996, to require that the land be transferred. A similar transfer requirement was included in the FY1996 budget reconciliation bill (H.R. 2491), but it was vetoed December 6, 1995.

Texas is developing a disposal site in the western part of the state; the Texas legislature approved a compact with Maine and Vermont May 22, 1993. The House Commerce Committee approved the compact (H.R. 558, H.Rept. 104-148) May 24, 1995, and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a companion measure (S. 419) May 18, 1995. However, the House rejected the bill under suspension of the rules September 19, 1995, by a vote of 176-243. Opponents of the compact, including members of the Texas delegation, contended that a proposed waste site in Texas was unsafe and would violate environmental agreements with nearby Mexico. The House approved a resolution for floor debate of the measure December 20, 1995 (H.Res. 313), but floor action on H.R. 558 under the rule did not occur.

Most other regional disposal compacts and individual states that have not joined compacts are running into some of the same problems finding low-level waste sites as the federal government is having with high-level waste. Once sites are located, they must be licensed by NRC or state agencies delegated such authority under NRC agreements -- a process that could take several more years, particularly if public opposition continues to grow. A Nuclear Energy Institute study released in May 1996 found that $512 million in public and private funds had been spent on low-level waste disposal facility development since passage of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980.

Only one disposal facility, at Barnwell, S.C., is currently accepting 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 opens a new regional disposal facility, as required by the Compact. The rejection of those proposals led the South Carolina General Assembly vote June 13, 1995, to withdraw from the Southeast Compact and form a new compact that would be open to all states but North Carolina. Such a compact would require congressional approval. In the meantime, South Carolina began accepting waste at Barnwell from all states but North Carolina in July 1995.

The only other existing low-level waste disposal facility 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 storetheir waste on site until new disposal sites are available.

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.

NRC's low-level waste disposal regulations (10 CFR 61) establish four classes of commercial low-level waste, based on the concentration of specific radionuclides. Three classes, A, B, and C, are considered suitable for shallow land burial, while a fourth class, "Greater Than Class C" (GTCC), requires special disposal facilities. Class A waste contains the least radioactivity, most of which comes from relatively short-lived radionuclides, which decay to background levels within a few decades. Class B waste is also relatively short-lived, but contains higher concentrations of short-lived radionuclides than in Class A. Class C waste can contain higher concentrations of both short-lived and long-lived radionuclides, while GTCC is higher still.

Most states planning new low-level waste disposal facilities 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.


P.L. 104-206, H.R. 3816, S. 1959
Energy and Water Development Appropriations for FY1997. Includes funding for DOE civilian nuclear waste program. House bill introduced and reported by House Appropriations Committee July 16, 1996 (H.Rept. 104-679); Senate bill introduced and reported by Senate Appropriations Committee July 16, 1996 (S.Rept. 104-320). Passed House July 25, 1996, by vote of 391-23; H.R. 3816 passed by Senate July 30, 1996, by 93-6. Conference report (H.Rept. 104-782) passed House September 12, 1996; passed Senate September 17, 1996. Signed into law September 30, 1996.

H.R. 558 (Fields)/S. 419 (Snowe)
Granting congressional consent to a low-level radioactive waste compact among Texas, Maine, and Vermont. House bill introduced January 1, 1995; referred to Committee on Commerce; approved by full Committee May 24, 1995 (H.Rept. 104-148); failed in House under suspension of the rules September 19, 1995. Senate bill introduced February 15, 1995; referred to Committee on Judiciary and approved by Committee May 18, 1995.

H.R. 1020 (Upton)
Integrated Spent Nuclear Fuel Management Act of 1995. Establishes spent nuclear fuel interim storage facility in Nevada to be opened by 1998. Introduced February 23, 1995; referred to Committee on Commerce. Approved by Committee August 2, 1995 (H.Rept. 104-254, Part 1); portions of the bill sequentially referred to Committees on Budget; Resources; and Transportation and Infrastructure.

H.R. 3394 (Lewis)
Repeals Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act and requires the U.S. Department of the Interior to provide for disposal of civilian radioactive waste generated by regions or states without disposal facilities. Introduced May 7, 1996; referred to Committee on Commerce.

S. 554 (Bryan)
Nuclear Waste Independent Review Act. Establishes an independent commission to complete a report about U.S. nuclear waste policy within two years after enactment and prohibits federal licensing of off-site nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities until the commission's report is submitted. Introduced March 13, 1995; referred to Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

S. 1271 (Craig)
Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1995. Authorizes interim storage facility near Yucca Mountain for civilian and defense-related nuclear waste and changes licensing requirements for underground waste repository. Introduced September 25, 1995; referred to Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Approved by committee March 13, 1996 (S.Rept. 104-248).

S. 1596 (Murkowski)
Conveys the federally owned site of the planned Ward Valley low-level radioactive waste disposal facility to the State of California for $500,100. Introduced March 7, 1996; referred to Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Approved by committee March 13, 1996 (S.Rept. 104-247).

S. 1936 (Craig)
Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1996. Authorizes interim storage facility near Yucca Mountain for civilian and defense-related nuclear waste and changes licensing requirements for underground waste repository. Introduced July 9, 1996; read the first time. Passed by Senate July 31, 1996, by vote of 63-37.


U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Commerce. Subcommittee on Energy and Power. High-Level Nuclear Waste Policy. Hearings, 104th Congress, 1st session. June 28, 1995; June 30, 1995; July 12, 1995. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1995. 346 p. "Serial no. 104-24"

U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Hearing, 104th Congress, 1st session. March 2, 1995. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1995. 246 p. S. Hrg. 104-56


League of Women Voters Education Fund. The Nuclear Waste Primer. Washington, D.C., 1993. 170 p.

National Research Council. Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards. Washington, National Academy Press, 1995. 205 p.

Nuclear Energy Institute. Survey of Expenditures for Implementation of the LowLevel Radioactive Waste Policy Act as Amended. May 1996. 43 p.

Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. Disposal and Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel -- Finding the Right Balance. March 1996. 53 p.

-----. Nuclear Waste Management in the United States: The Board's Perspective. June 1996. 12 p.

Southern States Energy Board. Spent Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste Transportation Handbook. January 1995. 63 p.

U.S. Department of Energy. Draft Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Program Plan. May 1996. DOE/RW-0458, Revision 1.

-----. Analysis of the Total System Life Cycle Cost of the Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Program. September 1995. DOE/RW-0479. 67 p.

-----. 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. Radioactive Waste: Status of Commercial Low-Level Waste Facilities. May 1995. GAO/RCED 95-67.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list