Nuclear Waste Mangement Policy
For twenty years, the Department of Energy (DOE)
has been working to develop a central repository for spent nuclear
fuel and defense-related high-level radioactive waste. Since 1987,
the only site under consideration has been Yucca
Mountain in southern Nevada adjacent to the Nevada Test Site.
DOE has spent over $6 billion characterizing the site's suitability
for long-term containment of nuclear waste. With the repository not
scheduled to open until 2010 at the earliest, spent nuclear fuel is
presently stored at eighty-one commercial reactor facilities around
the country as well as a number of DOE former weapons production sites.
President Bush approved the Yucca Mountain site in 2002, prompting
formal opposition from the State of Nevada that Congress subsequently
overrode. After the Yucca Mountain project moved into the licensing
and construction phase, it experienced numerous legal and funding
roadblocks. The initial goal of opening the repository by 2010 now
Yucca Mountain Proposal Enters Review Phase
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced on September 9, 2008 that it has deemed Department of Energy’s (DOE) license application for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain “sufficiently complete.” This is the go-ahead for a full technical review of the document. There is a three-year deadline for the review process with a possible one-year extension. The NRC warns that its ability to complete the review is contingent on receiving the adequate funding – an extra $40 million in the 2009 budget year – from Congress. There is no guarantee that the project will be approved.
The DOE predicts the Yucca Mountain repository could open by 2020 at the earliest. The United States’ nuclear waste, which is currently stored at 121 sites in 39 states around the country, would be consolidated at the Yucca Mountain site, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. The proposal is highly controversial. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) warned that Yucca Mountain is a “dangerous proposition” not only for Nevadans, but “for every community in the country that would have the waste transported through their cities and towns.”
In contrast, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman described the move to the review phase as “a significant step forward,” saying he is confident the NRC's review will confirm that the Yucca Mountain repository will safely store nuclear waste “in a manner that is most protective of human health and the environment.” He recognized that “the expansion of commercial nuclear power will be the key to providing the large amounts of emissions-free base load power we need, and the establishment of the Yucca Mountain repository is an important step toward enabling that expansion to occur." (9/08)
DOE Submits Yucca Mountain License
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is currently reviewing an application for the construction of the first national repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste at Yucca Mountain submitted June 3, 2008 by the Department of Energy (DOE). The NRC has a 90-day period to review the application and if accepted the entire approval process for the issuance of the construction and operation license is expected to take a minimum of three years.
National interest in “clean” or low-carbon emitting forms of energy has prompted support for increasing the role of nuclear within the nation’s energy portfolio. In the President’s fiscal year 2009 budget request DOE stated they are “working with industry partners to promote the near term licensing and deployment of the first new nuclear plants in over thirty years, as well as to extend the life of current plants.”
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the 104 nuclear power plants operating today produce about 20% of the nation’s electricity. While nuclear energy is an attractive solution when discussing global warming, the disposal of nuclear waste still poses a concern. A 2002 NRC report estimates a total of 45,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel is being stored at nuclear reactor sites around the country. The mandated capacity of Yucca Mountain is 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 ensures that Yucca Mountain will be the only site considered as a national repository until a 2010 deadline when additional sites might also be deemed necessary. (6-30-08)
For more information on Yucca licensing activities at the NRC visit: http://www.nrc.gov/waste/hlw-disposal/licensing.html
For DOE’s license application visit: http://www.nrc.gov/waste/hlw-disposal/yucca-lic-app.html
Review of Nuclear Waste Management and Status of Yucca Mountain
The National Academy of Public Administration released a report on a management review of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Environmental Management (EM), which oversees the cleanup of dangerous materials resulting from more than half a century of nuclear weapons production and government-sponsored nuclear energy research. EM has accepted and begun to implement nearly all of the panel's proposals, which deal with staffing levels, human resource improvements and related issues.
In related news, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2007 slashed funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository by more than $100 million, leaving the project with a total budget for fiscal year 2008 of $390 million (among the lowest total funding level ever in real dollars). This reduction prompted Edward Sproat, Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which manages the project, to suggest significant "reprogramming" and the possibility that the license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be delayed beyond the June 2008 target submission date.
The fate of the Yucca Mountain repository is becoming increasingly uncertain and there are few alternative solutions for handling the growing stockpiles of nuclear waste stored in temporary sites throughout the nation. Policymakers will continue to consider options for nuclear waste disposal in the U.S., especially as the nation considers the growth of the nuclear power industry to provide clean, stable energy and help to mitigate climate change. Geoscientists should be prepared to offer information and education on this critical issue as the nation advances and transitions in this arena.
The report on defense nuclear waste management is available at http://www.napawash.org/ (1/24/08)
Moving Forward on Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository
Efforts to create a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada
have received renewed attention from Congress since an ambitious new
director was appointed to the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste
Management in the Department of Energy (DOE). Director Edward 'Ward'
Sproat III has constructed a timeline for the project predicting receipt
of nuclear waste beginning March 31, 2017. He has also submitted legislation
to the House and the Senate containing measures deemed necessary for
the successful and timely completion of the project. The Nuclear Fuel
Management and Disposal Act (H.R.
5360 and S.
2589) would provide the funding and authority that DOE needs to
complete the repository at Yucca Mountain.
However, the legislation is not without controversy: the Act calls
for the Yucca Mountain project to be declared "in the public
interest", thereby forcing the state of Nevada to yield water
rights to DOE. Opponents of the project say that allowing the federal
government to supersede Nevada's ability to control its own water
resources sets a dangerous precedent that should be of concern to
every state in the union. The legislation does not address the highly
contentious issue of interim storage. The nation's 40,000 metric tons
of nuclear waste is currently being stored at nuclear facilities across
the country, causing concern over rising costs and inconsistent security.
Congress is divided over whether centralized interim storage should
be pursued to mitigate these concerns, or whether resources should
instead be focused entirely on completing Yucca Mountain on schedule.
To view the text of the House legislation, H.R. 5360, click here.
To view the text of the Senate legislation, S.2589, click here. (10/5/06)
Senators Introduce New Yucca Legislation
On April 6, 2006, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair
Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
Chair James Inhofe (R-OK) announced joint sponsorship of the Nuclear
Fuel Management and Disposal Act (S.2589),
a bill drafted by the Department of Energy (DOE) to revitalize the
Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository program. Provisions in the
bill would "facilitate the licensing, construction, and operation
of a repository at Yucca Mountain," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman
wrote in a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney accompanying the bill.
One of the primary provisions in the legislation would remove the
70,000 metric ton limit on the amount of nuclear waste that can be
stored in the repository. According to a 2002 Environmental Impact
Statement, the site has the capacity to store 120,000 metric tons
of waste. Without lifting the 70,000 ton cap, the repository will
likely be oversubscribed as soon as it opens.
Further provisions in the bill would: remove 147,000 acres of land
around the repository from public use to comply with Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) licensing requirements; authorize construction of
a rail line connecting Yucca Mountain with the national rail network;
give DOE the authority to regulate the transportation of radioactive
materials; reform the funding system to give DOE easier access to
the Nuclear Waste Trust Fund; eliminate "essentially duplicative
regulation" by exempting nuclear waste stored in NRC-certified
containers from federal, state, and local regulation; authorize the
Environmental Protection Agency to administer air quality permits;
and ensure adequate water supplies for the nuclear waste activities.
DOE officials are optimistic that the Congress will eventually pass
the legislation. "We believe it is very important to get Yucca
Mountain open so we can start moving waste from the communities all
around the country where it exists," said Deputy Energy Secretary
Clay Sell. "We're going to work with our congressional allies
and supporters to get it passed as quickly as possible."
Despite sponsoring the DOE bill, Domenici is planning to introduce
his own legislation on the repository, which he called three-fourths
complete in early April. He is currently in the midst of conversations
with Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Jeff Bingaman
(D-NM) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), an opponent of
the Yucca Mountain Project.
To view the text of the legislation, a summary and a sectional analysis
of the bill, and the letter from Energy Secretary Bodman to Vice President
EPA Issues Public Safety Standards for Yucca Mountain
On August 9, 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued
its new public
safety standards for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository,
overcoming what has been the most significant obstacle to beginning
the licensing process for the site. When a federal appellate court
validated plans for a Yucca Mountain repository in July, 2004, the
ruling came with the caveat that EPA would have to revise its public
safety standards for the site, a requirement that has contributed
to delays in opening the repository.
The new standard sets the acceptable level of radiation
exposure for an individual living near the site to 15 millirem per
year (roughly equivalent to three chest X-rays) for up to 10,000 years
after the repository closes. The two-tiered standard then sets an
additional maximum dose of 350 millirem above background per year
for up to 1 million years. These standards are designed to address
all potential sources of exposure, including air, groundwater and
soil. According to an EPA press release, the new standards also require
the repository to "withstand the effects of earthquakes, volcanoes
and significantly increased rainfall while safely containing the waste
during the 1 million-year period."
EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, Jeffrey
Holmstead, stated that the EPA employed "the best available scientific
approaches" in crafting the standard. According to an article
in Greenwire, a spokesperson for the Department of Energy also expressed
confidence that DOE would be able to meet the millirem targets in
their licensing demonstration. However, Nevada Governor
Kenny Guinn and Attorney General Brian Sandoval quickly condemned
the new standards, calling the ruling "a snub to the scientific
community and federal appeals court in Washington." Governor
Guinn said, "I can't imagine how they could have done anything
to make themselves more vulnerable in the court of law as well as
the court of science," Guinn added. "This is junk science
at its worst."
According to Governor Guinn, the standard wrongly tolerates the level
of "natural background" radiation exposure and "lets
future residents of Nevada suffer 100 times more radiation exposure
from releases than what the federal government currently permits for
residents living near nuclear power plants."
According to Greenwire, the Department of Energy did not release
an expected target date for filing their license application, but
the agency will likely file the application by early next year.
More EPA documents and information: http://www.epa.gov/radiation/yucca/
Nevada Governor's Response: http://gov.state.nv.us/pr/2005/PR_2005-08-09YUCCA.htm
DOE Discloses Possible Data Manipulation at Yucca Mountain
On March 16, 2005, the Department of Energy (DOE) disclosed the existence
of several emails that suggest rainfall and water infiltration data
for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository site may have been
manipulated to meet quality assurance measures. Employees at Bechtel
SAIC Company, LLC, Yucca's primary managing and operating contractor,
uncovered the emails while sifting through thousands of documents
that must be included in the licensing support network for the project's
license application. DOE is in the process of refining a draft of
the license application, which must include all relevant documentation
in order to receive approval. Ted Garrish, Deputy Director of DOE's
Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, stated in appropriations
hearings earlier this year that DOE should be ready to submit the
license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for
review by the end of 2005.
Representative Jon Porter (R-NV), Chairman of the House Government
Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce and Agency Organization,
requested that the documents be submitted to his subcommittee, and
posted the emails on the subcommittee's website.
In the emails, employees with the U.S. Geological Survey express frustration
with the quality assurance guidelines, which are based on NRC requirements,
and allude to fudging certain information. Porter has organized a
series of hearings
to investigate the extent of damage caused by the recent allegations.
Nevada's congressional delegation and other state officials are also
building their case against the repository; on April 5, Senators Harry
Reid (D-NV) and John Ensign (R-NV) wrote Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman,
demanding a complete halt to the project. (4/11/05)
The use of deep geologic repositories as a means to isolate radioactive
waste from the environment was recommended in 1957 by the National
Academy of Sciences (NAS). According
to the report, an ideal repository would be permanent, contain passive
hydrologic and geochemical properties, be capable of safely storing
the waste until it decays to nonhazardous levels, and contain a system
of independently engineered barriers to enhance the geologic characteristics.
As an ideal material for a repository, NAS recommended a thick salt
formation because salt is hard, flexible (allowing fractures to heal
themselves), and less permeable to water migration.
The first federal policy to deal with spent nuclear fuel and high-level
radioactive waste commenced in 1982 when Congress passed the Nuclear
Waste Policy Act (NWPA). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
ruled that the minimum time a permanent nuclear waste repository should
be capable of isolating waste was at least 10,000 years. In 1987,
the NWPA was amended to declare Yucca Mountain the only site to be
considered for further study. Opposition to the Yucca Mountain site
immediately surfaced with many citing concerns over the site's proximity
to Las Vegas, transportation of waste to the site, potential seismic
activity, and groundwater infiltration. The 1987 amendments to the
NWPA mandated that Yucca Mountain open in 1998, but opposition from
politicians and technical difficulties have caused construction delays,
moving the opening date to 2010.
Yucca Mountain will have to meet strict standards to help ensure the
safety of people living in the region, the environment, and national
security. On June 6, 2001, EPA released its final public health and
environmental radiation protection standards
for Yucca Mountain. These standards set the levels of radiation exposure
that are acceptable from groundwater, air, and soil in the areas surrounding
the repository. The stringent standards would limit human exposure
from all sources of radiation to less than 15 millirems (mrem) per
year, with a separate groundwater standard of 4 mrem per year to be
measured 11 miles from the site. The security of Yucca Mountain has
also gained increased attention since September 11, 2001.
On May 8th, the full House of Representatives voted 306-117
in favor of the Yucca Mountain site, over the objections of Nevada's
Governor Kenny Guinn. The Senate concurred on July 9th with a vote
moving the Yucca Mountain project into the licensing phase, under
the jurisdiction of the U.S. Nuclear
The project was then challenged by the state of Nevada in January
of 2004. Lawyers told the court that Yucca Mountain is not suitable
to handle the radionuclides that could seep into groundwater sources
thousands of years from now. The EPA only evaluated the site for 10,000
years in the future despite recommendations from the National Academy
of Sciences to evaluate the site for 300,000 years when the waste
will be more hazardous. Because the casks that will hold the waste
cannot last for more than 10,000 years, the geology of the mountain
alone must be able to isolate the waste over much longer time periods.
The State of Nevada has long maintained that the rock at Yucca Mountain
cannot isolate radioactive waste for more than 10,000 years.
On July 9th 2004, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District
of Columbia released a ruling that upheld the constitutionality of
the Yucca Mountain site selection process but also rejected the 10,000
year compliance period for limiting the release of radiation set by
the EPA. The court found that the EPA did not follow the guidance
of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), who advised the EPA that
this standard was not feasible and could not be applied to Yucca Mountain.
In light of this decision, the court ordered the EPA to revise the
standards to be consistent with NAS's recommendations on practical
standards for radiation releases or obtain approval from Congress
that would allow them to implement the current standards.
The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository suffered another setback
on August 30, 2004 when a federal nuclear licensing panel ruled that
the Energy Department's repository document database was incomplete.
The ruling, handed down by a three-member panel of the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board said that when DOE
certified its document database on June 30, it failed to satisfy NRC
regulations by not making publicly available substantial quantities
of documentary material.
Yucca Mountain has also encountered difficulties in the appropriations
process. Funding for the repository remained at $131 million after
the House Appropriations Committee passed the fiscal year 2005 (FY05)
Energy and Water Development appropriations bill on June 16, 2004.
The original request from the Office of Management and Budget for
the project was $880 million, with only $131 million coming from Congress
and the other $749 million from a reclassification of the nuclear
industry's annual contributions to the Nuclear Waste Trust Fund. The
$749 million is dependent on passage of H.R. 3981 allowing money from
an annual nuclear waste fund to be used for the Yucca Mountain project
through 2009. The bill was attached as a floor amendment to the Energy
and Water Development appropriations bill, which only allocated $131
million for the project. It is expected that the money from the trust
fund will keep Yucca Mountain on schedule for its site license approval
by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December and its expected
2010 opening. However, the Committee was only authorized to allocate
$576 million for Yucca Mountain in FY05, which means it is still $304
million short of the Office of Management and Budget's proposal. This
would effectively ground the project and further delay its opening.
Sources: Hearing Testimony, Department of Energy, E&E Daily,
Environmental Protection Agency, Greenwire, Las Vegas Review-Journal,
Library of Congress, National Academies, Nuclear Energy Institute,
Salt Lake Tribune, Washington Post, House Subcommittee on Parks; hearing
testimony; Associated Press; San Francisco Chronicle online; THOMAS
legislative database; Las Vegas Review-Journal; American Minerologist.
Contributed by David R. Millar, 2004 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern; Katie
Ackerly, 2005 AGI/AAPG 2005 Spring Intern; Linda Rowan, Director of
Government Affairs; and Jenny Fisher, 2006 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern.
Background section includes material from AGI's High-level
Nuclear Waste Legislation Update 108th Congress.
Please send any comments or requests for information
to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on October 8, 2008.