Disposal of High-Level Nuclear Waste
The nations decades of commercial nuclear power production and nuclear weapons production have resulted in growing inventories of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level nuclear waste. This highly radioactive waste is currently stored at sites in 35 states because no repository has been developed for the permanent disposal of this waste.
Commercial nuclear power production in the U.S. has resulted in nearly 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuelfuel that is used and removed from nuclear reactorsand the inventory is increasing by about 2,000 metric tons per year. In addition, nuclear weapons production and other defense-related activities have resulted in about 13,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level nuclear waste. This high-level waste is extremely radioactive and needs to be isolated and shielded to protect human health and the environment. It is currently being stored primarily at sites where it was generated. After spending decades and billions of dollars to research potential sites for a permanent disposal site, including at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, the nation remains without a repository and the future prospects are unclear.
Two federal agenciesthe Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Energy (DOE)are primarily responsible for the regulation and disposal of the nations spent nuclear fuel. NRC regulates the construction and operation of commercial nuclear power plants and spent fuel repositories, as well as the storage and transportation of spent fuel. DOE is charged with investigating sites for a federal geologic repository to dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste from commercial nuclear power plants and some defense activities under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended.
Selecting and developing a site for a permanent repository and moving the waste to the site will be challenging for a number of reasons, including the following:
- Researching, planning, and constructing a permanent disposal facility is a costly and complex project which could take from 15 to 40 years before a facility is ready to begin accepting spent fuel and once the facility is available, it will take several more decades to ship spent fuel to it.
- Prolonging interim storage of spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites could have financial and other impacts. For example, the federal government bears part of the storage costs as a result of industry lawsuits over DOEs failure to take custody of commercial spent nuclear fuel in 1998, as required. These costs exceed $15.4 billion and could grow by an additional $500 million a year after 2020.
- Social and political opposition to a permanent repository, not technical issues, is the key obstacle to selecting a site and building a facility. Important tools for overcoming such opposition include transparency, economic incentives, and education.
- A successful waste management strategy will need consistent policy, funding, and leadership, especially since the process will likely take decades. Some federal and other stakeholders suggested that a more predictable funding mechanism and an independent organization may be better suited than DOE to overseeing nuclear waste management.
Figure 1: Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Sites
Spent Nuclear Fuel
GAO-12-797, Aug 15, 2012
Commercial Nuclear Waste
GAO-11-229, Apr 8, 2011
DOE Nuclear Waste
GAO-11-230, Mar 23, 2011
Nuclear Waste Management
GAO-10-48, Nov 4, 2009
Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel
GAO-13-532T, Apr 11, 2013
Nuclear Fuel Cycle Options
GAO-12-70, Oct 17, 2011