Nuclear Waste Management Governance in the U.S.

Sydney Hamilton, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Nuclear power accounts for approximately 20% of the energy produced in the U.S. each year. It is zero carbon and sometimes cast as the best option to decarbonize the energy sector. But, nuclear power has a dirty secret: its waste has nowhere to go. The nuclear power industry in the United States produces between 2,000 and 2,400 metric tons of spent fuel per year. Even if the United States builds no new nuclear plants, the country would still be expected to produce around 150,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste by 2050. Currently, nuclear power plants hold their own spent fuel in dry casks and large pools at their facilities. These solutions were never intended as a permanent storage option, and they will not last forever. In 1982, the U.S. Congress passed legislation ordering the U.S. government to build a geologic repository — an underground storage facility — to store radioactive waste. However, nearly forty years later, that obligation has yet to be met.

Dry casks at Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station.

Legislative Background

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). The NWPA supported deep geologic repositories for disposal of radioactive waste, established procedures to evaluate and select sites for geologic repositories. As part of this law, Congress also started the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF), into which nuclear utilities paid a fee in return for the federal government taking responsibility for disposing of spent fuel.

Three sites were examined to determine their suitability for a geologic repository: Yucca Mountain, Nevada; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Hanford, Washington. In 1987, Congress amended the NWPA to designate Yucca Mountain as the site of the proposed repository. At this time, the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, was from Texas, and the Majority Leader, Tom Foley, was from Washington. This gave them the political advantage to push the repository out of their state and into the lap of freshman Nevada Sen. Harry Reid. 

Fifteen years later, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham officially recommended Yucca Mountain as a suitable site to President George W. Bush. After obtaining Congressional approval, President Bush signed the joint resolution into law, officially designating Yucca Mountain as the United States’ first civilian nuclear waste repository site, subject to approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). But, various stakeholders raised 293 objections against the project. The same year, Nevada filed major lawsuits against the Department of Energy (DOE), the NRC, President Bush, and Secretary Abraham, in an effort to keep nuclear waste out of Yucca Mountain. In 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. dismissed Nevada’s lawsuits.

In 2008, the DOE finally submitted its license application (which would allow Yucca Mountain to begin operations) to the NRC for review, but following a series of legal battles, the DOE was forced to terminate its efforts to develop Yucca Mountain for sustainable nuclear waste storage. President Obama stated, “After spending billions of dollars on the Yucca Mountain Project, there are still significant questions about whether nuclear waste can be safely stored there. I believe a better short-term solution is to store nuclear waste on-site at the reactors where it is produced… until we find a safe, long-term disposal solution that is based on sound science.”

In March 2010, the DOE submitted a motion to the NRC to withdraw its license application for Yucca Mountain. The DOE and the NRC worked to completely dismantle the project until the NRC formally suspended the licensing process in September 2011. Four years later, the fee that nuclear electricity utilities had been paying since 1982 was halted pursuant to a court order. The Nuclear Waste Fund currently holds over $35 billion and collects approximately $1.5 billion per year in interest. That same year, the NRC partially resumed the licensing process. However, it has yet to determine whether to license Yucca Mountain. In 2018, President Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget request included $120 million to resume the license review for the repository at Yucca Mountain and interim storage of nuclear waste, but, as of April 2020, Congress has not directed funding for the license application to resume.

Implications of Impasse 

Storing spent fuel and radioactive waste at approximately 100 sites across the U.S., as opposed to one central repository, poses several problems. The first is environmental. Spent fuel pools and dry cask storage can store radioactive waste for a long time. However, this waste is often radioactive for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years, and these solutions are not designed to handle the waste for that long. Eventually, the casks and pools will begin to break and leak, causing an environmental catastrophe. A geologic repository is the only long-term solution for this waste because it prevents the waste from contaminating most of the environment. The area that houses a geologic repository is rendered useless forever, but the waste would then be contained in one small, concentrated area, as opposed to scattered across the U.S.

Another problem is the cost. Under the NWPA, the DOE is legally bound to store radioactive waste from commercial reactors and the defense complex. But, because it has yet to license and utilize a geologic repository, utility companies sued the DOE in 1998 for violating the NWPA. Consequently, the DOE is paying utilities approximately half a billion dollars each year as a result of the lawsuit.

A third challenge is the issue of national security and non-proliferation. Spreading radioactive waste across 100 sites in the United States creates 100 targets for adversaries to attempt to steal radioactive materials from – or simply to terrorize by destroying and causing an environmental catastrophe. Radioactive waste is dangerous for thousands of years after reactors no longer use it; it must be guarded for its entire radioactive lifetime, so nefarious actors cannot use the waste to wreak havoc.

The final major issue is that many Americans do not believe nuclear power is a clean, safe source of energy because there is no long-term, sustainable solution to manage nuclear waste. The general public does not know much about nuclear power, but what most people do know is that the U.S. government tried and failed to site a “waste dump” in Nevada. This makes the public believe that nuclear waste is too difficult to deal with, and the U.S. should avoid the problem altogether by not using nuclear power. This is not simply a bad image for nuclear power: it is inaccurate. The U.S. does know what to do with waste, and it just has not had the support from Congress and the American public to move forward with the project. 

Way Forward

President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future wrote a report in 2012 that outlined three main objectives to ensure a successful nuclear future for the U.S.: regain control of the Nuclear Waste Fund, establish an independent organization to handle radioactive waste, and identify and license a geologic repository for nuclear waste. 

President Trump has changed his stance on Yucca Mountain over the course of his administration. In March 2017, the Trump Administration announced it would request Congressional approval for $120 million to restart licensing activity at the Yucca Mountain repository. Still, in October 2018, President Trump claimed he agreed with Nevadans, who oppose the project. In February 2020, President Trump tweeted that he respects the wishes of Nevada and that his administration will work to find a new solution to the problem of nuclear waste. Since then, the Trump administration has made no further plans.

Nuclear power is a clean, safe form of energy that has the potential to fill a higher percentage of the United States’ energy needs in the future. Yet, a permanent solution must be established for the waste for that to happen. The politicization of this issue has led to the impasse that currently exists, and American politicians must work with scientists to find the proper solution to this problem. 

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