Full Title: Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal
Author(s): Mark Holt
Publisher(s): Congressional Research Service
Publication Date: 10/2017
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Management of civilian radioactive waste has posed difficult issues for Congress since the beginning of the nuclear power industry in the 1950s. Federal policy is based on the premise that nuclear waste can be disposed of safely, but proposed storage and disposal facilities have frequently been challenged on safety, health, and environmental grounds. Although civilian radioactive waste encompasses a wide range of materials, most of the current debate focuses on highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants. The United States currently has no disposal facility for spent nuclear fuel.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) calls for disposal of spent nuclear fuel in a deep geologic repository. NWPA established the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) in the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop such a repository, which would be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Amendments to NWPA in 1987 restricted DOE’s repository site studies to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. DOE submitted a license application for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository to NRC on June 3, 2008. The state of Nevada strongly opposes the Yucca Mountain project, citing excessive water infiltration, earthquakes, volcanoes, human intrusion, and other technical issues.
Licensing and design work for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository was halted under the Obama Administration, which cited continued opposition from Nevada. However, the Trump Administration included funds to restart Yucca Mountain licensing in its FY2018 budget submission to Congress on March 16, 2017. The House-passed omnibus appropriations bill for FY2018 (H.R. 3354, H.Rept. 115-230) includes the Administration’s proposed funding for Yucca Mountain. However, the FY2018 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee (S. 1609, S.Rept. 115-132) would provide no funding.
Although no funding has been appropriated for Yucca Mountain activities since FY2010, a federal appeals court on August 13, 2013, ordered NRC to continue the licensing process with previously appropriated funds. The NRC staff completed its safety evaluation report on Yucca Mountain on January 29, 2015, concluding that the repository would meet NRC standards after specific additional actions were taken, such as acquisition of land and water rights. After halting the Yucca Mountain project, the Obama Administration established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to develop an alternative nuclear waste policy. The commission issued its final report on January 26, 2012, recommending a “consent based” process for siting nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities.
After OCRWM was dismantled, responsibility for implementing the Obama Administration’s nuclear waste policy was given to DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy (NE). In January 2013, NE issued a nuclear waste strategy based on the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations. The strategy called for a pilot interim storage facility for spent fuel from closed nuclear reactors to open by 2021 and a larger storage facility to open by 2025. A site for a permanent underground waste repository would be selected by 2026, and the repository would open by 2048. DOE issued a draft consent-based nuclear waste siting process on January 12, 2017.
A bill to provide the necessary land controls for the planned Yucca Mountain repository (H.R. 3053) was ordered reported by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on June 28, 2017. As amended by the committee, the bill would authorize DOE to store commercial waste from nuclear power plants at a nonfederal interim storage facility. It would also increase the capacity limit on the Yucca Mountain repository from 70,000 to 110,000 metric tons, in comparison with the 76,500 metric tons currently stored at U.S. nuclear plants, and provide mandatory funding for specific stages of repository development.