On-site storage continues the status quo for isolating nuclear waste from the public and the environment. While electric power companies clearly oppose the continuation of on-site storage, which is costly and resource intensive, there are several real advantages.
First, companies are able to closely monitor stored waste and provide security.
Second, the waste is readily available should a decision to reprocess be made.
Third, the waste is distributed around the country, generally in the area where the nuclear material was used to produce power; in other words, other regions of the country do not have to accept responsibility for nuclear material that benefited other areas.
But continuing on-site storage further complicates DOE’s liability for not fulfilling its legal obligation to take possession of nuclear waste. DOE estimates that the government will accumulate up to $500 million per year in liability every year after 2020 that it fails to take custody of the waste in accordance with its contracts with the reactor operators, beyond the estimated $12 billion in liabilities that will have accrued to that point.
Communities near nuclear power plants are expected to increase pressure on companies to terminate nuclear waste storage, particularly since, to date, no facility has undertaken an environmental review to assess the impact of storing nuclear waste at a site beyond the period for which it is currently licensed.
GAO points out that because waste storage would extend beyond the life of nuclear power reactors, decommissioned reactor sites would not be available for other purposes, and operators of former reactors may have to stay in business for the sole purpose of storing nuclear waste.
Finally, although dry cask storage is considered reliable in the short term, the longer-term costs, maintenance requirements, and security requirements are not well understood. Experts believe waste packages will retain their integrity for at least 100 years, but dry storage systems will eventually degrade, and the waste in those systems would have to be repackaged.
GAO’s report briefly touches on reprocessing, one other option for managing nuclear waste. Reprocessing separates plutonium and uranium from other nuclear waste contained in spent nuclear fuel. The separated plutonium can be used to fuel reactors, but also to make nuclear weapons. Thus, the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation through reprocessing has diminished interest in this alternative. Also, with current technologies, reprocessing is more costly than geologic disposal.
Two studies cited by the Congressional Budget Office in a 2007 report indicated that the cost of reprocessing was as low as 6 percent above the cost of direct disposal and as high as twice the cost of direct disposal.
Moreover, reprocessing does not eliminate all radioactive waste; therefore, there will be additional costs to manage the unprocessed portion.