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Nuclear Energy/Nuclear Waste Disposal Issues

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Today 20 percent of U.S. electricity comes from the 104 nuclear power plants in 31 different states. The Energy Information Administration estimates a decrease in this percentage over the next 25 years as energy demand increases. Increasing demand for electricity is projected to be met by coal-fired power plants in the near future. With rising concerns of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, some favor nuclear energy as the cleaner alternative. Without new plants though, U.S. nuclear power capacity will diminish during this crucial time for clean energy. No new nuclear plants have come online since 1975, so concerns with the lack of new plants as well as safety and waste disposal issues have left policy makers and the public grappling with the future of nuclear power.

If the U.S. decides to increase its nuclear power capacity, it will have to reevaluate whether to continue with plans of long-term storage or develop reprocessing technology. Spent fuel is presently stored at 120 temporary locations around the country in 33 states, including at commercial reactor facilities and former Department of Energy (DOE) weapons production sites. For more than 20 years, the DOE has been working to develop the Yucca Mountain Repository in southern Nevada as a central storage location for spent nuclear fuel and defense-related high-level radioactive waste. After numerous delays, DOE finally submitted its license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a waste repository at Yucca Mountain in 2008. The DOE later submitted a motion to withdraw the application, but the NRC denied the withdrawal. In 2011, budget limitations led the NRC to suspend the Yucca Mountain licensing proceedings. President Obama has made it clear he does not support Yucca Mountain as a waste repository and essentially attempted to terminate the project by eliminating funding for it in his FY 2011, 2012, and 2013 budget requests; the future of the program remains unknown. In the meantime, the equally controversial idea of reprocessing spent fuel has been gaining ground.

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Previous Action

NRC Nominees Macfarlane and Svinicki Confirmed by Senate (06/12)
On June 29, the full Senate approved two nominations by President Barack Obama for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Allison Macfarlane will serve as chair of the NRC to replace outgoing chairman Gregory Jaczko. Republican Kristine Svinicki was nominated to be a commissioner for a second five-year term.

Macfarlane is an environmental science policy professor at George Mason University and served on the Blue Ribbon Commission for America’s Nuclear Future (BRC). She received her Ph.D. in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her nomination and approval came after Jaczko announced his departure amid accusations that he was bullying NRC staff and withholding information from the commissioners. Macfarlane will serve for the remainder of Jaczko’s term which will end in June 2013. At a hearing before the Committee on Environment and Public Works on June 13, Macfarlane promised to bring control to the NRC after a rocky four years under Jaczko.

Svinicki has served on the commission since 2008. She has worked as a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and as a professional staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Some senators opposed her re-nomination because of concerns that she supports industry interests over nuclear power plant safety.

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Nuclear Energy
Currently, 104 nuclear reactors operate in 31 states, generating 20 percent of U.S. electricity. All of these nuclear power plants were built before 1975 and the construction of new plants has been stymied by safety issues, costs and waste disposal concerns. The operating costs of a nuclear power plant have decreased over time and are now more competitive with the operating costs of coal-fired and natural gas fired power plants, especially with the rising costs of natural gas. Nuclear power plants are also much cleaner than coal or even natural gas fired power plants, producing almost no emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases. Assuming safety, construction costs, and waste disposal issues can be dealt with, it seems like nuclear power plants are a good energy alternative for a population increasingly concerned with climate change.

Indeed, nuclear power was included in many major energy policy initiatives introduced by President George W. Bush. The National Energy Policy Group (NEPG), established by President Bush in early 2001, produced a report that in part encouraged expanding the nuclear energy portion of the U.S. electricity portfolio by providing financial incentives to build new nuclear power plants. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (H.R. 6 and Public Law 109-58) was based on the NEPG report and provided the nuclear energy industry with tax rebates on capital facilities investments, help with liability coverage, and a new, faster process for approving new nuclear power. In the 111th Congress, Senators introduced The Nuclear Power 2021 Act (S.2812) to amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and stimulate development of new, cost-effective, small nuclear reactors. The Nuclear Power 2021 Act was reintroduced (S.512) during the 112th, but again failed to pass.

The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are the primary federal agencies with oversight authority over nuclear power generation in the U.S. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has a more limited role managing waste repository research and facilitating nuclear fuel research. DOE responsibilities include research and development of nuclear technologies, providing for the security of nuclear facilities, facilitating international cooperation, and ensuring a continual supply of resources necessary for nuclear power. Managing these responsibilities in DOE are the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, the Office of Nuclear Energy and the Office of Science. Nuclear programs within DOE also serve defense purposes, including the development of defense nuclear power and nuclear weapons research through the National Nuclear Security Administration. The NRC is an independent agency that regulates the civilian nuclear power industry. NRC is charged with maintaining safe nuclear power generation through licensing, operational oversight, and rulemaking.

In July 2012, Allison Macfarlane replaced Gregory Jaczko as chair of the NRC. Macfarlane is an environmental science policy professor at George Mason University and served on the Blue Ribbon Commission for America’s Nuclear Future (BRC). Macfarlane will serve for the remainder of Jaczko’s term which will end in June 2013. Additionally, Kristine Svinicki retained her seat as an NRC commissioner for a second five-year term amid opposition from some senators claiming concerns that she supports industry interests over nuclear power plant safety.

Nuclear Waste
There are two options for nuclear waste material: reprocessing or storing. Spent fuel is presently stored at 120 temporary locations around the country in 33 states, including at commercial reactor facilities and former DOE weapons production sites. Reprocessing consists of chemically separating the plutonium, uranium, and other byproducts from the irradiated nuclear fuel. Up to 95 percent of the plutonium and uranium can be recovered and then reused in the nuclear reactors. It can reduce the amount of waste generated by 90 percent. This is a popular method for managing nuclear waste in Europe. However, reprocessed uranium and plutonium could be used to make nuclear weapons, causing the U.S. to fear nuclear proliferation and to spend the past 20 years focused almost exclusively on developing long-term storage.

The use of deep geologic repositories as a means to isolate radioactive waste from the environment was recommended in the1957 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), The Disposal of Radioactive Waste on Land. 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 NWPA gave the DOE a timetable to find and construct an underground repository, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) authority to regulate construction and operation. Under the act, DOE accepts fees from nuclear electricity companies in return for providing a repository; if DOE does not fulfill this obligation by 2020 it must accept the waste itself, which could cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Debate has arisen over whether nuclear utilities should continue to pay fees to DOE for the transportation and storage of their waste if no permanent storage site exists. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) sued DOE in 2010 challenging whether the fees remained necessary. In 2012, the court ordered DOE to submit a report in January 2013 on how the fees were being used to advance nuclear waste storage efforts. DOE filed a response to the court in January 2013 determining that the fees are necessary as the administration and Congress pursue a new nuclear waste strategy. NARUC and NEI disagreed with DOE’s report claiming that it was based on the assumption that Congress would pass a nuclear waste policy and submitted a motion to reopen the case with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

As part of the 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, located in southern Nevada adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, the only site to be considered for further study and for it to open in 1998. Opposition to the Yucca Mountain site immediately surfaced, citing concerns over the site's proximity to Las Vegas, transportation of waste to the site, potential seismic activity, and groundwater infiltration. The opposition from politicians and technical difficulties caused construction delays, and the earliest the facility would be operable is now 2020.

In 2001, EPA released its first public health and environmental radiation protection standards for Yucca Mountain. These strict standards set the levels of radiation exposure that are acceptable from groundwater, air, and soil in the areas surrounding the repository. The standards, however, were criticized for only extending 10,000 years.

On July 23, 2002 after being approved by Congress, President Bush signed the Yucca Mountain Development (H.J. Res 87) resolution into law (Public Law: 107-200), moving the Yucca Mountain project into the licensing phase under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) despite the objections of Nevada's Governor Kenny Guinn.

The state of Nevada challenged the project in 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 10,000 year evaluation was contrary to recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report to evaluate the site for 300,000 years. Because the casks holding 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 ruled the selection of the Yucca Mountain site was constitutional and the groundwater standards were adequate, but the ruling rejected the 10,000 year compliance period for limiting the release of radiation set by the EPA. The court ordered the EPA to revise its standards to be consistent with NAS recommended radiation releases.  The EPA’s new standards extend out 1 million years and comply with NAS recommendations.

The Yucca Mountain project has since suffered multiple setbacks, from problems with the NRC licensing committee to insufficient funds for the project. The project submitted a license application to build the repository on June 3, 2008. At President Obama’s request, the Department of Energy filed a motion with the NRC in March 2010 to withdraw its license application for a waste repository at Yucca Mountain. However, in June 2010, a panel of judges at the NRC ruled that the DOE did not have the authority withdraw its application.

In October 2010, Gregory Jaczko, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), announced that the NRC would end its review of the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Jaczko cited the lack of a budget for fiscal year (FY) 2011 as his reason for closing the review. President Obama included no funding for the program in his FY 2011 budget request. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) wants the Yucca Mountain repository to be terminated, as do the majority of residents in Nevada. South Carolina and Washington, which have temporary nuclear waste storage sites, are suing to overturn Jaczko’s decision. Several members of Congress condemned Jaczko’s action, and it is likely to be reviewed in the courts.

President Obama has made it clear he does not support Yucca Mountain as a waste repository and essentially attempted to terminate the project by eliminating funding for it in his FY 2011 budget request. The future of the project remains unknown. So far the DOE has spent about $7.5 billion on the project, with an estimated $18.5 billion more needed for construction. After that the operational costs of the facility will be about $1 billion per year.

Recently there has been reconsideration of reprocessing. In 2001 President Bush’s national energy policy included developing nuclear reprocessing technology. The DOE announced in 2006 the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership(GNEP) to promote a new nuclear power recycling program that would develop safe, cost-effective technology to reprocess nuclear material to be used exclusively for fuel and not for weapons. This is a shift in U.S. policy regarding nuclear waste recycling. Previously the U.S. did not approve of any recycling of nuclear waste for energy because of the possibility of nuclear weapon proliferation from enriched waste products. In 1977 President Carter cut all funds for commercial reprocessing efforts in the U.S. following President Ford’s 1976 presidential directive to stop reprocessing spent fuel due to weapons concerns. Now there is new technology which can make recycled waste far less viable for weapon production. GNEP would also share civilian nuclear power generation technology with developing countries that agree to use the technology for civilian purposes only. In the coming years, Congress may reconsider reprocessing as an alternative to long-term waste repositories like Yucca Mountain.

See the CRS Report, Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: U.S. Policy Development, for a more complete timeline.

President Obama directed DOE Secretary Chu in March 2010 to establish the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to conduct a review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and to provide recommendations for developing a waste management solution. Videos, presentations and statements from past meetings and notices of future meetings are available at the Blue Ribbon Commission’s web site. The commission released their final report in January 2012.

The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 led to the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The Fukushima disaster prompted additional debate over the future of the U.S. nuclear energy and waste programs. In response, the NRC initiated an immediate review of safety at 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. and set-up the Near-Term Task Force which provided recommendations based on lessons learned from Fukushima in their report, Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century. In March 2012, the NRC sent a progress report to Congress detailing the status of the implementation of the Near-Term Task Force’s recommendations.

The North Anna nuclear power plant in Louisa, Virginia shut down automatically during the August 2011 earthquake in Virginia, centered 11 miles from the plant, as the 5.8 magnitude earthquake exceeded what the plant was designed to handle. The plant restarted in November 2011, but given the incidents in Virginia and Japan, the NRC has called for an upgrade in seismic risk analysis for nuclear facilities.

After a federal court ruling in June 2012 obligating the NRC to store waste in a less environmentally harmful way, the commission voted to delay granting or renewing licenses for nuclear power plants until it has addressed the ruling. The NRC was also directed to assess storage facilities for vulnerability to fires and waste leakage. The vulnerability of long-term above ground storage to natural hazards and the Fukushima disaster prompted the court’s concern that the NRC was risking severe environmental and health issues.

Contributed by Wilson Bonner, Geoscience Policy staff; Kimberley Corwin, 2013 AAPG/AGI Spring Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's summaries and updates for Nuclear Energy/Nuclear Waste in the 112th Congress, NAS, CRS reports, EPA, and DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.

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Last updated on February 11, 2013

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