GAO urges Congress to address spent fuel stalemate

September 28, 2021, 3:00PMRadwaste Solutions
Spent nuclear fuel in dry storage at the decommissioned Zion nuclear power plant in Illinois.

Congress needs to take action to break the impasse over a permanent solution for commercial spent nuclear fuel, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The GAO recommends that Congress amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) to authorize a new consent-based siting process, restructure the Nuclear Waste Fund, and direct the Department of Energy to develop and implement an integrated waste management strategy.

The GAO also recommends that the DOE finalize the consent-based process it began in 2015 for siting consolidated interim storage and permanent geologic repository facilities. The DOE agrees with that recommendation.

The report: The GAO report, Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel: Congressional Action Needed to Break Impasse and Develop a Permanent Disposal Solution, sets out actions that experts have identified as necessary to develop a solution for spent nuclear fuel disposal. The GAO said that it reviewed DOE and other agency documents and interviewed 20 experts and 25 stakeholders from industry, nongovernmental organizations, and tribal and state groups.

According to the GAO, the experts highlighted concerns about the effect of the continuing spent fuel impasse on environmental, health, and security risks; efforts to combat climate change; and taxpayer costs.

The report notes that about 86,000 metric tons of commercial spent fuel is stored on-site at 75 operating or shutdown nuclear power plants in 33 states, an amount that grows by about 2,000 metric tons each year.

The recommendations: The GAO report offers four matters for congressional consideration:

  • Congress should consider amending the NWPA to authorize a new consent-based process for siting, developing, and constructing consolidated interim storage and permanent repository facilities for commercial spent nuclear fuel.
  • Congress should consider creating a mechanism, such as an independent board, to provide political insulation and continuity of leadership for managing the spent nuclear fuel disposal program.
  • Congress should consider restructuring the Nuclear Waste Fund so that funds used to develop, construct, and operate a permanent repository are based on the commercial spent nuclear fuel program’s life cycle costs.
  • Congress should consider directing the DOE to develop and implement an integrated waste management strategy, consistent with any amendments to the NWPA, that includes plans for the transportation, interim storage, and permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel.

DOE action: The GAO also recommends that the energy secretary direct the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy to continue its efforts to engage the public and finalize its draft consent-based siting process, which was released for public comment in January 2017.

The GAO said that the draft includes elements that nearly all experts agree are critical for an effective siting process and that finalizing it could help position the department to implement a consent-based process if Congress amends the NWPA to allow for storage and disposal options other than, or in addition to, the Yucca Mountain repository.

In response, Kathryn Huff, the DOE’s acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy, said that the department concurs with the recommendation. She noted that the DOE is resuming work to implement a consent-based siting process and expects to publish an updated process in early 2022, pending an initial request for public input to be issued this year.

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