Proposed FY 2025 budget beefs up EPA repository expertise

April 16, 2024, 7:01AMRadwaste Solutions

Funding in President Biden’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget may signal movement toward the promulgation of a new generic Environmental Protection Agency standard for high-level nuclear waste repositories in the United States.

U.S. nuclear waste policy has essentially been at a standstill for the last three decades. The Yucca Mountain Project in Nevada has served as the site of America’s designated repository since the 1987 passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act. Although Yucca Mountain is the law under the NWPA, plans to license and develop the repository have since hit a brick wall of political opposition in the state of Nevada.

In the meantime, the U.S. nuclear industry has accumulated more than 85,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel, triggering a provision of the 1987 NWPAA requiring the Department of Energy to begin the search for a second repository. Setting baseline standards for the safety and technological requirements of such a site is a key initial step in the process.

What’s new? The EPA’s Office of Indoor Air and Radiation budget request includes $635,000 for payroll and two additional staff to help the agency address “critical gaps in EPA’s radiological protection capacity including . . . radioactive waste storage and disposal approaches.”

Craig Piercy, ANS executive director/CEO, stated, “The administration’s FY 2025 budget provides a strong first step toward the development of a generic repository standard for the long-term storage of high-level waste. This has been a signature priority of the American Nuclear Society for many years. And we’re at the point where there’s broad recognition among policymakers that a generic repository standard is the first step toward a more rational nuclear fuel cycle policy.”

Recommendations made: ANS partnered with eight nongovernmental organizations last year in asking Congress to update the EPA’s generic standards for safe, permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The groups noted that it could take the EPA five to 10 years to update disposal recommendations, so time is of the essence.

A special ANS committee in 2023 produced the report Generic Standards for Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste. “The future course of waste management is far from settled, but one fact is evident. There will be high-level radioactive waste that requires disposal, and that material will be emplaced in some sort of underground geological repository or repositories,” the report outlines.

“It’s time to get moving again, and in order to evaluate the suitability of future geologic repository sites, the country needs up-to-date health and safety standards against which long-term repository performance can be assessed,” said John Kessler, chair of the ANS special committee.

Among the considerations, nuclear advocates want to see flexible guidelines to account for the types of waste—more than just “once through a light water reactor”—that can be stored. New systems and technologies may create paths in the United States to recycle nuclear fuel, as is done in many other countries, and that would create a different type of spent fuel.

Background: Under the current U.S. system, low-level radioactive waste is compacted and shipped to regulated facilities for disposal; high-level radioactive waste (such as used nuclear fuel) is safely stored at reactor sites—first underwater in secure pools and then in robust, passively cooled dry storage systems.

The current repository standard uses radionuclide release limits measured against the entire world population, while modern international standards (such as those in Switzerland and Canada) use dose limits to measure the protection of future inhabitants in the surrounding area of a repository. Furthermore, 40 CFR Part 191, which is the current EPA regulation, was narrowly written for mined repository applications, limiting the applicability to other types of deep geologic repository designs.