US consortium calls for action on waste

13 March 2017

A US business consortium has called for "decisive, swift and tangible" action on used nuclear fuel and high-level waste storage, including the re-establishment of the Office for Civilian Radioactive Waste Management  (OCRWM) and re-engagement with the Yucca Mountain review process. The US Nuclear Infrastructure Council (USNIC) says the current "impasse" is costing US taxpayers billions of dollars.

The entrance to Yucca Mountain, pictured in 2007 (Image: NRC)

In more than 30 years since enactment of the US Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), and 18 years since the federal government failed to meet its statutory and contractual obligation to begin removing used fuel from nuclear energy reactor sites, the country's nuclear waste management program is in limbo "largely due to universally recognised political reasons", the USNIC Backend Working Group has found. As a result, there is no available disposal pathway for used fuel and high-level waste from both the commercial and defence sectors, with used fuel inventories in excess of 75,000 tonnes now in storage at operating and shutdown reactor sites.

"This impasse is costing US taxpayers billions of dollars," the working group says in an issue brief published last week. It estimates current federal liabilities at about $25 billion, with an $11 billion increase since the Obama Administration's first moves to terminate the Yucca Mountain project.

Failure to "bring closure to the backend of the nuclear fuel cycle" has adversely impacted nuclear energy's potential role in the country's energy mix, the group said, with the lack of a disposal pathway cited as a factor behind barriers to securing funding for nuclear technology, licensing delays, and state-level bans or restrictions on new nuclear construction. "[T]he continued stalemate is damaging America's international standing on issues of nuclear safety, non-proliferation and security," it said.

"It is crystal clear that decisive, swift and tangible action is needed to re-establish a comprehensive program to address the federal government's statutory and contractual obligations for disposition of growing inventories of [used] nuclear fuel and high-level waste - as well as to provide a path forward for the backend of the fuel cycle for currently operating reactors and pave the way for new nuclear energy plants required for US energy independence, jobs, exports, made-in-America clean energy leadership and national security," the group said.

It recommends that program reforms are addressed through an "omnibus approach" including the Yucca Mountain project; consolidated interim storage solutions; management and funding reforms; transportation infrastructure; research and development of backend technologies such as recycling, to optimise the fuel cycle; and incentives for host communities.

Yucca Mountain reversal

Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, has since 1987 been named in the NWPA as the sole initial repository for disposal of the country's used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes. The DOE submitted a construction licence application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2008, but the US administration subsequently decided to abort the project, appointing a high-level Blue Ribbon Commission to come up with alternative strategies.

The USNIC working group called for the completion of the NRC's environmental and safety review of the Yucca Mountain licence application to be completed and a final decision on whether or not to authorise construction of the repository to be made. It said this should include immediate action to re-establish the OCRWM.

While the licensing process is being completed, consolidated interim storage solutions - with an emphasis on existing private-sector initiatives - should be pursued, the group said. "Consolidated storage is not a substitute for a permanent geologic repository but it does offer potential advantages as part of an integrated used fuel management system," it said. The private sector should also be used "to the maximum extent possible" to carry out work to ensure the availability of necessary infrastructure and capabilities for the transport of used fuel and high-level waste.

"While the nuclear waste management program has been stymied for years in the executive and legislative branches of government, it cannot be allowed to remain so indefinitely … It is time for the new Administration to join with Congress and re-establish the Nation's leadership role in the safe, peaceful and responsible use of nuclear energy," the report concludes.

The USNIC is a business consortium that advocates for new nuclear and global engagement of the US nuclear supply chain.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News