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Congressional Research Service Reports
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IB92059 - Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal (pdf)

11-Jan-2002; Mark Holt; 19 p.

Update: Energy Secretary Abraham notified the Governor of Nevada on January 10, 2002, that he would recommend to the President that a national repository for highly radioactive waste be constructed beneath Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Abraham’s recommendation to the President must wait until 30 days after Nevada has been notified. The recommendation is based on revised site suitability guidelines issued by the Department of Energy (DOE) November 14. The State of Nevada filed a lawsuit December 17 contending that the revised guidelines relied too much on waste packages and other engineered barriers rather than geological features to prevent radioactive releases. A December report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) had urged that more research be completed before the Secretary of Energy made a recommendation on Yucca Mountain. The controversial GAO report (GAO-02-191) concluded that the repository may not be ready to open until 2015 – 5 years later than DOE’s current target. The FY2002 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill (H.R. 2311, H.Rept. 107-258, P.L. 107-66), signed by the President on November 12, provides $375 million for DOE’s civilian nuclear waste disposal program, which is responsible for work at the Yucca Mountain site. That funding level is about $15 million below the FY2001 base appropriation and $70 million below the Bush Administration’s request, although it is $100 million above the initial Senate-passed level.

Abstract: Management of civilian radioactive waste has posed difficult issues for Congress since the beginning of the nuclear power industry in the 1950s. Although federal policy is based on the premise that nuclear waste can be disposed of safely, new storage and disposal facilities for all types of radioactive waste have frequently been delayed or blocked by concerns about safety, health, and the environment. Civilian radioactive waste ranges from the highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants to the far-less-radioactive uranium mill tailings that result from the processing of uranium ore. Most of the debate over civilian waste disposal focuses on spent fuel and on “low level” waste from nuclear power plants, medical institutions, civilian research facilities, and industry. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) calls for disposal of spent nuclear fuel in a repository in a deep geologic formation that is unlikely to be disturbed for thousands of years. NWPA established an office in the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop such a repository and required the program’s civilian costs to be covered by a fee on nuclear-generated electricity, paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund. Amendments to NWPA in 1987 restricted DOE’s repository site studies to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. DOE is studying numerous scientific issues in determining the suitability of Yucca Mountain for a nuclear waste repository, which must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Questions about the site include the likelihood of earthquakes, volcanoes, groundwater contamination, and human intrusion. NWPA’s goal for loading waste into the repository was 1998, but DOE does not expect to open the facility until 2010 at the earliest. DOE issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Yucca Mountain site in July 1999 and plans to apply for an NRC license in 2003 to build the repository. However, recent press reports indicate that the license application is unlikely to be submitted before 2004. DOE requested $445 million for the program in FY2002, an increase of more than $50 million from the FY2001 base appropriation. The final FY2002 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill (H.R. 2311, H.Rept. 107-258, P.L. 107-66), signed by the President November 12, 2001, provides $375 million for the program. Low-level waste sites are a state responsibility under the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980. Pursuant to that act, 10 regional compacts for disposal of low-level waste have been approved by Congress, most recently a compact among Texas, Maine, and Vermont. Only three commercial low-level waste sites are currently operating, in the states of South Carolina, Utah, and Washington. The Washington facility is accepting waste just from within the Northwest and Rocky Mountain regional compacts, and the Utah site accepts only the least-concentrated class of low-level waste, although it has received preliminary approval to accept the other major low-level waste classes as well. [read report]

* These CRS reports were produced by the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress providing nonpartisan research reports to members of the House and Senate. The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) has made these reports available to the public at large, but the Congressional Research Service is not affiliated with the NCSE or the National Library for the Environment (NLE). This web site is not endorsed by or associated with the Congressional Research Service. The material contained in the CRS reports does not necessarily express the views of NCSE, its supporters, or sponsors. The information is provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. NCSE disclaims all warranties, either express or implied, including the warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. In no event shall NCSE be liable for any damages.