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Forging a Path Forward on U.S. Nuclear Waste Management: Options for Policy Makers

Nuclear power is considered in many countries a critical facet to maintaining reliable access to electricity during a global transition to low-carbon energy sources. One challenge to its potential in the United States, however, is the current standstill regarding a disposal pathway for spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors. This impasse has a negative bearing on nuclear energy’s ability to supply more zero-carbon electricity and may cost U.S. taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in government liability for failing to meet contractual obligations to take possession of the waste from utilities.

Containers holding spent nuclear fuel
Containers holding spent nuclear fuel. Photo: Sandia National Laboratories

Despite the scientific community assessing that commercial spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste, such as from defense activities, can be safely isolated in deep underground repositories, U.S. efforts to license and operate one have flatlined. The original plan for siting at least two repositories for such waste was abandoned first by Department of Energy and then by Congress. Yucca Mountain in Nevada was designated in law as the nation’s sole potential disposal site by Congress in 1987, fomenting the state’s opposition to the project. As a result of that opposition, Congress has not funded the project since 2010.

Still, progress has been made over the last few decades in nuclear waste disposal programs in countries such as Finland, Sweden, and Canada. And the United States has seen the successful opening and operation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico to dispose of generally less radioactive but long-lived transuranic nuclear waste from defense activities. Such programs offer insights for how the United States can try to resolve the challenges with commercial nuclear waste disposal and potentially alleviate one obstacle to wider adoption of nuclear energy to decarbonize the U.S. economy.

A new report, part of wider work on nuclear energy at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, explains how the United States reached its current stalemate over nuclear waste disposal. It then examines productive approaches in other countries and a few domestic ones that could guide U.S. policy makers through options for improving the prospects of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste disposal going forward, including the following:

  • Create a new organization whose sole mission is nuclear waste management (and whose approach is consent-based). Since the 1970s, reports have noted that a single-purpose organization would have a number of advantages over a program residing within Department of Energy, which has multiple missions and competing priorities. Accordingly, Congress could pass legislation to create a separate nuclear waste management organization that has full access to needed funding and employs a consent-based approach to achieve greater support from state and local communities for the siting of facilities.

  • Improve the funding structure of the U.S. nuclear waste program. The program was supposed to be self-financing, with owners of nuclear power plants paying into a Nuclear Waste Fund that would cover the costs of management and disposal. However, due in part to budget laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, a lack of access to needed funding has arisen. If the first option of creating a new organization is not achievable in the near-term, Congress could at least improve the waste program’s funding structure.

  • Pursue disposal of U.S. defense waste first. There could be greater public acceptance for the disposal of defense-related waste over commercial waste due to the national security missions involved and patriotic sensibilities. Momentum in one area of waste management could lead to the overall program’s advancement, as a successful endeavor for defense waste disposal would inform and encourage commercial waste efforts. Nuclear waste from the defense sector also has some technical characteristics — the inventory being bounded, smaller, cooler, and with less potential for reuse — that may argue for its disposal ahead of power plant spent nuclear fuel.

  • Prepare for a large-scale transportation program. To date, the transportation of nuclear waste has been very safe. However, there are additional steps the federal government could take to prepare for the eventual larger-scale transportation campaign of spent nuclear fuel to either a consolidated interim storage site or a geologic repository. Such options include amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to allow states to recover the full costs of planning and operations for transportation across their borders and ensuring an independent regulator has authority over the transportation regime to strengthen public confidence in the program.

  • Update generic regulatory standards for future geologic repositories. There are two sets of U.S. regulatory standards for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste disposal: one for Yucca Mountain and one for all other sites. The Environmental Protection Agency, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Department of Energy could resolve inconsistencies between regulations and ensure that new generic regulations for future disposal facilities are flexible enough to cover novel approaches (e.g., deep boreholes).

  • Negotiate an agreement with Nevada on Yucca Mountain. The U.S. government could pursue, concurrent with new siting efforts, negotiating an agreement with Nevada to investigate, for example, the disposal of a more limited waste inventory at Yucca Mountain. Nye County, which is where the site is located, sees a disposal facility there as potentially safe and is interested in the associated economic development. Nevada’s long-standing concerns regarding the project would have to be addressed to gain broader public support within the state.

Read the full report here.

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3 years ago

Well written and a good perspective. Every point you make is exactly what we need and have needed. Unfortunately it is virtually the same discussion we were having in the US 35-40 years ago. Consent is great and likely necessary, but people tend to forget that only one State has ever asked the Federal Government to pursue a repository within their State; and that was Nevada in 1975. Nevada has since backed out of their support (consent) even though the host county and a majority of counties within the state still are supportive. The point is consent is one thing, enduring consent is another.

For Congress to require Yucca Mountain in the law and then not fund it and then call it a failure is like the Schoolyard Bully who pushes a kid down and then points, laughs and yells Clutz!

The only way we will move forward is for the US to finally act on the points you delineate above.

Henry Crichlow
3 years ago

This article covers most aspects of the waste disposal spectrum. Except, for those technology areas where demonstrated novel deep horizontal oil well drilling and emplacement techniques can be rapidly implemented to safely and economically produce a viable deep disposal repository for thousands of high-level waste capsules in closed deep rock formations.

Bruce Considine
3 years ago

Molten Salt Reactors can burn this waste down to a small fraction of material that would only need three centuries of storage. This places the “waste” into the category of unused fuel thus simplifying everything and reducing costs. The corporations involved could supply the details.

3 years ago

Would have been beneficial to explore fundamentals of reprocessing SNF and opportunities and risks to supply future advanced reactor designs. There is a significant precedence in the world and technological advances since US abandoned SNF reprocessing. Lead time is more than obvious in this arena and difficult to believe future generations will accept disposal when high percentage of typical SNF is available for reuse.

Molly P Johnson
Molly P Johnson
3 years ago

I would agree with pretty much everything here except for Yucca Mtn. It is unsuitable for permanent disposal for very important reasons: it sits directly over the Armagosa Aquifer, it is NOT dry; in fact there is a huge issue with the amount of water that seeps into the test tunnel, it is in an earthquake zone and it is in a volcanic area that is not dead.