The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 attempted to establish a
comprehensive disposal strategy for high-level nuclear waste.
Regrettably, that strategy has failed miserably. The government has
spent billions of dollars without opening a repository, has
yet to receive any waste, and is amassing billions of dollars
of taxpayer liability.
On January 24, 2008, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced the
Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2008 (S. 2551) to help to
provide the flexibility, clarifications, and authorizations that
would allow the United States finally to set a rational policy for
managing spent nuclear fuel.
Wasting Ratepayer and Taxpayer
The strategy codified in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act seemed
straightforward and economically sound when it was developed back
in the early 1980s. It charged the federal government with the
responsibility of disposing of spent nuclear fuel and created
a structure through which nuclear energy users would pay for the
service. These payments would go into the Nuclear Waste Fund, which
the federal government could access through congressional
appropriations to pay for disposal activities.
The federal government has since accumulated approximately $27
billion (fees plus interest) in the Nuclear Waste Fund and has
spent approximately $8 billion to prepare the repository for
operations. The fund currently has a balance of approximately $19
billion. Utility payments into the fund amount to about $750
million annually. That is nearly a $27 billion surcharge on
electricity bills for which ratepayers are in danger of
The story is no better for the taxpayer. The Nuclear Waste
Policy Act of 1982 set January 31, 1998, as the deadline for the
federal government to begin receiving spent fuel. Yet the
repository has never opened, despite the expenditure of billions of
dollars. The federal government's refusal to take possession of the
spent fuel has created a huge taxpayer liability to the
nuclear power plant operators. The courts have confirmed this
liability. As a result the taxpayer has already paid $94 million in
lawyer expenses and $290 million in damages. The government is
appealing another $420 million award. Long-term liability
projections are astronomical, reaching $7 billion by 2017 and
$11 billion by 2020.
The federal government's inability to fulfill its legal
obligations under the 1982 act has often been cited as a
significant obstacle to building additional nuclear power plants.
Given nuclear power's potential to help to solve many of the
nation's energy problems, now is the time to break the impasse over
what to do with the nation's spent nuclear fuel. The Nuclear Waste
Policy Amendments Act of 2008 would begin that process.
A Lot Has Changed Since 1982
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act was written and amended under the
assumption that nuclear power was a declining industry. This
assumption is no longer valid.
Approximately 20 companies and consortia from around the world
have recently released plans to build around 30 reactors in the
United States. Some of these planned reactors may never be built.
On the other hand, many more may be built. The U.S. is facing a 40
percent increase in electricity demand over the next 25 years. The
pressure to reduce CO2 emissions and dependence on foreign energy,
combined with the inability of wind or solar power to meet the
energy demand affordably or reliably, creates huge potential
for nuclear power.
This potential growth in nuclear power will have significant
ramifications for how the nation manages nuclear waste. More
nuclear energy will lead to more spent nuclear fuel. The best way
to manage spent fuel is determined by two factors: how much is
being produced, which is a function of the amount of nuclear energy
produced, and what disposal options are available.
The current strategy provides only one option: placing the spent
fuel in the Yucca Mountain geologic repository. This would be
a rational option if the United States was moving away from nuclear
power. Absent a broad expansion of nuclear power in the U.S.,
Yucca's 120,000-ton physical capacity would probably be adequate to
store America's current 56,000 tons of spent fuel as well all
as future waste from the current fleet of plants, but the
growing likelihood that the United States will expand its
nuclear capacity, perhaps dramatically, brings this approach into
However, spent fuel can be both an asset and a liability.
Relating spent fuel policy to future growth in nuclear power is
essential for a sustainable strategy. The Nuclear Waste Policy
Amendments Act would add flexibility to America's policy by
providing for the time needed to develop a new spent fuel
management regime that is more conducive to expanding nuclear power
in the U.S.
A More Reasonable Approach
The key provision in the Amendments Act would institute a phased
licensing regime. The initial phase would last for 300 years.
During this time, spent fuel would be placed in the Yucca
repository, remain retrievable, and be actively monitored. The
license could be amended through a process that would take place at
least every 50 years to take advantage of operational improvements,
technological advances, and safety innovations. The
repository would then be permanently sealed, thus concluding
the second and final phase.
Keeping Yucca open for an extended period before final closure
is not technically precluded by current statute. It allows for
implementation of a phased approach. Extending the time between
opening and final closure would largely eliminate the risk of
premature closure. This is an important distinction given the
long-term safety concerns over permanent radioactive waste storage
and the vast energy resources that could be extracted from spent
One serious concern is the million-year licensing standard that
the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed for
radiation safety at Yucca Mountain. This standard means that the
Department of Energy must guarantee that the EPA's safety
standards, including those for radiation release, can be sustained
for that length of time. Beyond the dubiousness of any million-year
guarantee, this approach is filled with weaknesses. First it
assumes technological stagnation. By allowing the repository to be
filled and permanently sealed, the plan prevents applying any
future technological innovations at Yucca.
The proposed phased approach would also provide additional
time to gauge how best to integrate fuel-cycle technologies like
recycling (fuel reprocessing) into the overall nuclear
program. Until the future of nuclear power is better defined, it is
impossible to know what will be the best technological
solutions for managing spent nuclear fuel, but recycling spent fuel
should clearly be considered.
Securing a Future Resource.The current U.S. policy is to
dispose of all spent fuel permanently. This is a monumental waste
of resources. To create power, reactor fuel must contain 3 percent
to 5 percent enriched fissionable uranium (uranium-235). Once
the enriched uranium falls below that level, the fuel must be
replaced. Yet this "spent" fuel generally retains about 95 percent
of its original content, and that uranium, along with other
byproducts in the spent fuel, can be recovered and recycled.
Many technologies exist to recover and recycle different parts
of the spent fuel. The French have most successfully commercialized
a process. They remove the uranium and plutonium and fabricate new
fuel. Using that method, America's 56,000 tons of used fuel stored
across the nation contains roughly enough energy to power every
U.S. household for 12 years.
Other technologies show even more promise. Indeed, most of them,
including the process used in France, were developed in the United
States. Some recycling technologies would leave almost no
high-level waste at all and lead to the recovery of an almost
endless source of fuel. However, none of these processes has been
successfully commercialized in the United States, and they
will take time to develop. Until the future of nuclear power in the
U.S. becomes clearer, it will be impossible to know which
technologies will be most appropriate to pursue in this
Ultimately, these are decisions that the private sector should
make in consultation with government regulators. Valuing spent
nuclear fuel against the costs of permanent burial is a
calculation best done by the companies that provide fuel
management services. The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act would
give all of the involved parties the time needed to evaluate the
market and the state of technology and to make the best
Removing Artificial Capacity Constraints.The United
States has 56,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste stored at over
100 sites in 39 states, and America's 104 commercial nuclear
reactors are producing approximately 2,000 tons of spent fuel
annually. Putting aside the problems of opening the Yucca
repository, its capacity is statutorily limited to 63,000 tons of
commercial waste and 7,000 tons of Department of Energy waste. As
currently defined by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Yucca will reach
capacity in about three years unless the law is changed. Thus, even
if Yucca was operational, it is not a permanent solution, and the
nation would soon be back at the drawing board.
However, the repository's actual capacity is much larger than
the current limit. The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act would
repeal the 70,000-ton limitation and instead use technology,
science, and physical capacity as the primary limiting
factors. Recent studies have found that the Yucca repository
could safely hold 120,000 tons of waste. Some believe the capacity
is even greater. According to the Department of Energy, Yucca
Mountain could likely hold all of the spent nuclear fuel produced
by currently operating reactors.
Yet even with the expanded capacity, Yucca Mountain could hold
only a few more years of America's nuclear waste if the U.S.
increases nuclear power production significantly. According to one
analysis, America's current operating reactors would generate
enough spent fuel to fill Yucca's current capacity by 2010 and fill
a 120,000-ton Yucca over their lifetime. If nuclear power
production increased by 1.8 percent annually after 2010, a
120,000-ton Yucca would be full by 2030. At that growth rate
without recycling any spent fuel, the U.S. would need nine Yucca
Mountains by the turn of the century.
With the right mix of technologies, such as storage and
recycling, Yucca could last almost indefinitely. The
Amendments Act would give the U.S. adequate flexibility to solve
this problem as technology permits.
Setting a Deadline to Ensure Progress.The act would
establish a deadline for the Secretary of Energy to submit a
repository license application, which the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) must approve before the Department of Energy can
begin constructing the repository and begin receiving spent
nuclear fuel. This deadline is critical because it starts the clock
moving on the NRC's consideration of the application. While
this may seem arcane compared to some of the other provisions, it
could be the most significant provision in the end.
NRC commissioners serve five-year terms and are appointed by the
President and confirmed by the Senate. Submitting the application
by the June 30 deadline would allow the current NRC
commissioners to place the application on the NRC docket for
consideration. This assures that, at a minimum, the NRC will have
the opportunity to consider the Yucca Mountain construction
Waiting to submit the application would provide the opportunity
to seed the commission with anti-Yucca political appointees who
could choose not to place the application on the docket, thus
avoiding its consideration and leaving the U.S. with no set policy
for dealing with spent fuel.
Modernizing Spent Fuel Management
To modernize spent fuel management in the U.S. and provide the
flexibility, clarifications, and authorizations needed to move
nuclear power forward in the United States, Congress should:
- Set a deadline requiring the Secretary of Energy to submit a
repository license application for the Yucca Mountain
repository within the next few months.
- Provide for a phased licensing regime for the Yucca
repository that would store spent nuclear fuel, but actively
monitor it and keep it available for retrieval. This would
allow the U.S. to take advantage of operational improvements,
technological advances, and safety innovations in managing the
repository. It would also give the private sector the option of
recycling and reusing the spent fuel, which would also
significantly reduce the amount of nuclear waste that would
need to be stored permanently.
- Remove artificial capacity restraints on the repository.
Technology, science, and actual physical capacity should be
the primary limiting factors with respect to Yucca's storage
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 does not provide the
clarifications, authorization, and flexibility needed to move
nuclear power forward in the United States. However, Congress is
currently considering the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act
of 2008, which would take some significant steps in addressing
In the end, the nation may need a complete overhaul of its
approach to spent nuclear fuel. Congress should give full and
prompt consideration to this important issue.
Jack Spencer is Research
Fellow in Nuclear Energy in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for
Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
a full analysis of the EPA's million-year standard, see U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation,
"EPA's Proposed Public Health and Environmental Radiation
Protection Standards for Yucca Mountain," EPA Yucca Mountain
Fact Sheet No. 2, October 2005.
figure is an extrapolation based on the French experience with
Phillip J. Finck, Deputy Associate Laboratory
Director, Applied Science and Technology and National Security,
Argonne National Laboratory, statement before the Subcommittee on
Energy, Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives, June
16, 2005, at http://gop.science.house.gov/hearings/energy05/
june15/finck.pdf (January 17, 2008).