PDF _ R40202 - Nuclear Waste Disposal: Alternatives to Yucca Mountain
6-Feb-2009; Mark Holt; 27 p.

Abstract: Congress designated Yucca Mountain, NV, as the nation’s sole candidate site for a permanent high-level nuclear waste repository in 1987, following years of controversy over the site-selection process. Over the strenuous objections of the State of Nevada, the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted a license application for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository in June 2008 to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). During the 2008 election campaign, now-President Obama lent support to Nevada’s fight against the repository, contending in an issue statement that he and now-Vice President Biden “do not believe that Yucca Mountain is a suitable site.”

Under the current nuclear waste program, DOE hopes to begin transporting spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste to Yucca Mountain by 2020. That schedule is 22 years beyond the 1998 deadline established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). Because U.S. nuclear power plants will continue to generate nuclear waste after a repository opens, DOE estimates that all waste could not be removed from existing reactors until about 2066 even under the current Yucca Mountain schedule. Not all the projected waste could be disposed of at Yucca Mountain, however, unless NWPA’s current limit on the repository’s capacity is increased.

If the Obama Administration decides to halt the Yucca Mountain project, it has a variety of tools available to implement that policy. Although the President cannot directly affect NRC proceedings, the Secretary of Energy could withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application under NRC rules. The President could also urge Congress to cut or eliminate funding for the Yucca Mountain project, and propose legislation to restructure the nuclear waste program.

Abandonment of Yucca Mountain would probably further delay the federal government’s removal of nuclear waste from reactor sites and therefore increase the government’s liabilities for missing the NWPA deadline. DOE estimates that such liabilities will reach $11 billion even if Yucca Mountain opens as currently planned. DOE’s agreements with states to remove defense-related high-level waste could also be affected. If the Yucca Mountain project were halted without a clear alternative path for waste management, the licensing of proposed new nuclear power plants could be affected as well. NRC has determined that waste can be safely stored at reactor sites for at least 30 years after a reactor shuts down and is proposing to extend that period to 60 years. While that proposal would allow at least 100 years for waste to remain at reactor sites (including a 40-year reactor operating period), NRC’s policy is that new reactors should not be licensed without “reasonable confidence that the wastes can and will in due course be disposed of safely.”

Current law provides no alternative repository site to Yucca Mountain, and it does not authorize DOE to open temporary storage facilities without a permanent repository in operation. Without congressional action, therefore, the default alternative to Yucca Mountain would be indefinite onsite storage of nuclear waste at reactor sites and other nuclear facilities. Private central storage facilities can also be licensed under current law; such a facility has been licensed in Utah but its operation has been blocked by the Department of the Interior.

Congress has considered legislation repeatedly since the mid-1990s to authorize a federal interim storage facility for nuclear waste but none has been enacted. Reprocessing of spent fuel could reduce waste volumes and long-term toxicity, but such facilities are costly and raise concerns about the separation of plutonium that could be used in nuclear weapons. Storage and reprocessing would still eventually require a permanent repository, and a search for a new repository site would need to avoid the obstacles that have hampered previous U.S. efforts. [read report]

Topics: Waste Management, Natural Resources

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