Hazardous and Solid Waste

Options for Nuclear Waste Are Not Encouraging

Although these options have worthwhile aspects in terms of safety and practicality, each is very expensive and has contamination and exposure risks over both the short and long term. Not to mention, the American public is adamant in rejecting any proposal that places nuclear waste near communities either via transportation or storage.

In November 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported to three U.S. senators on the results of an 18-month “performance audit” of the key attributes and challenges of the Yucca Mountain repository, central storage, and on-site storage.

GAO concluded that a geologic repository that can hold nuclear waste for thousands of years without placing the public and the environment at risk and that can be maintained, once closed, at relatively low cost is the most advantageous disposal option. Central storage is viewed as a good interim measure that can help the Department of Energy (DOE) fulfill its legal obligation to relieve owners and operators of nuclear power plants of their radioactive waste until a geologic repository is ready. Lacking central storage, on-site storage is an effective means of isolating nuclear waste from human and environmental receptors.

But based on interviews with many government officials and experts in the nuclear field, GAO was forced to also conclude that under current law and current practice, the United States has no long-term solution for nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain has no support in the current administration. Central storage would require Congress to rewrite the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) and find a state(s) willing to hold up to 150,000 tons of nuclear waste for many decades in the uncertain hope that a permanent geologic repository will be completed. Space for on-site waste storage in cooling pools at nuclear facilities is being used up, which is forcing operators to switch to dry cask storage.

Also, the level of safety from radiation risks, which the two nongeologic options can provide, is unknown beyond a nebulous period of 30 to 100 years.

In addition, while power companies are probably becoming adept at ensuring the integrity of systems storing nuclear waste, they insist that DOE fulfill its responsibility to take possession of this waste, and the government is facing billions of dollars in liability for its failure to do so.