The U.S. Nuclear Waste Program

Nuclear power was developed in the U.S. without clear plans for the disposal of the highly radioactive waste generated by commercial nuclear reactors and in production of nuclear weapons. (links 1 & 2)

In the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, Congress attempted to establish policies and responsibilities leading to DOE acceptance of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors for disposal, beginning in January 1998. (link 3)

But implementation of the program has proven to be very difficult, even intractable. DOE did not begin acceptance in January 1998, leading to penalties for partial breach of the “Standard Contract’ established by the NWPA (Section 302(a)). (links 4&5)

In 2002, the Bush Administration sought and received Congressional approval of Yucca Mountain, in southern Nevada, as a repository for up to 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel from commercial reactors and high-level waste from DOE defense sites, such as Hanford, near Richland WA, and the Savannah River Site, near Aiken SC. The Bush Administration also managed to submit, in June 2008, an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to construct the Yucca Mountain repository.

However, early in 2009, the newly installed Obama Administration decided that the Yucca Mountain Project was “unworkable.” It shut down the Yucca Mountain Project, and attempted to withdraw the license application it had submitted to NRC about six months previous. The NRC decided not to continue the 3-4 year license application process. Interest groups for the utilities (NARUC) and the nuclear power industry (NEI) challenged the Administration, saying that, since the federal government was evidently not delivering a disposal site, they should not be required to pay the one mill per megawatt fee established by the NWPA (in Section 302(a)).

In early 2010, President Obama asked DOE Secretary Steven Chu to form a “Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future”, “to conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including all alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defense used nuclear fuel, high-level waste, and materials derived from nuclear activities.

The Blue Ribbon Commission issued its report in January 2012. Its recommended strategy includes eight key recommendations, of which the first six are:

  1. A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities;
  2. A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed;
  3. Access to the funds nuclear ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear waste management;
  4. Prompt efforts to develop one or more geological disposal facilities;
  5. Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated storage facilities;
  6. Prompt efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to consolidated storage and disposal facilities when such facilities become available.

The BRC report sparked a series of initiatives to get the U.S. nuclear waste program “back on track”—this time in a manner consistent with the BRC recommendations—and efforts by the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy[1] to take appropriate near-term actions that do not require new Congressional authorization.

link1: NRC AppF&A: licensed MWT capacity, cumulative; NRC AppB; NWPA in 1982.
link2: weapons production
link3: key elements(1982; 1987 removed; 2013 revised removed…..a table).
link4: something about recent and prospective payments from the Judgment Fund….BRC pg. 80.
link5: something about State Agreements with DOE sites.
link6: something about State Agreements with DOE sites.

  • Milestones in the U.S. nuclear waste program, e.g.
    • 1982: NWPA
    • 1987: NWPAA
    • 2002: Congress approves YMP
    • 2005:
    • 2006: NAS: “Going the Distance”?
    • 2008: OCRWM submits license application
    • 2009: Obama Admin shuts-down the YMP
    • 2010: Blue Ribbon Commission established, begins review.
    • 2011: BRC Draft Report, and stakeholder review.
    • 2012: BRC Report issued.
    • 2012: Bingaman’s S. 3469
    • 2013: Senate Energy Committee legislative proposal.
  • Legislation regarding the U.S. nuclear waste program
    • 2012: S. 3469: Bingaman
    • 2013: S. ____: Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee
      • Comparison: Current Senate bill versus NWPA
  • Litigation regarding the U.S. nuclear waste program
    • NY et. al. v NRC (the waste confidence case)
    • Aiken et. el v. NRC (the mandamus case)
    • NARUC & NEI v. DOE (the fee case)
  • Regulation of SNF & HLW storage and disposal
    • NRC: Waste Confidence EIS
    • NRC:
  • Organization for managing the U.S. nuclear waste program
    • Current Organization: DOE-NE/NE-5/NE-NFST
    • SRGs: States roles
  • Implementation initiatives by the federal government
    • DOE Strategy
    • Critique of DOE Strategy
  • Current events ….the nuclear waste program in the news.
    • Newsclips: about 100 of the most relevant, most recent first

[1] With the shut-down of the Yucca Mountain Project and the DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, remaining SNF-HLW functions were transferred to the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy.