Energy & Environment

Federal watchdog calls on Congress, Energy Dept. to overhaul nuclear waste storage process


A federal watchdog called on Congress to consider amending a key nuclear waste statute to address storage issues in a report published Thursday.

In the report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that 75 commercial reactor sites have produced about 86,000 tons of nuclear waste. Until 2010, these byproducts were stored at Yucca Mountain, but the path forward for storage has been unclear since the end of its licensing.

Since the government ended its use of Yucca Mountain for storage, it has largely managed commercial nuclear waste on an ad hoc basis. Experts consulted by GAO said a standardized, integrated system is necessary, which cannot be established without congressional authorization.

The Energy Department began drafting such a process in 2015 but has yet to finalize it. The draft program design largely aligns with what experts told the watchdog was necessary for such a process.

Based on interviews with experts, GAO recommended that Congress amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) to allow the Energy Department to create a new storage siting process. Lawmakers should also restructure the Nuclear Waste Fund to make sure the process is reliably funded, the watchdog stated.

“Experts highlighted concerns about the effect of the continuing impasse on environmental, health, and security risks; efforts to combat climate change; and taxpayer costs. For example, the amount the federal government will have to pay to owners to store spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites will continue to grow annually,” GAO said, according to its report. 

On the executive side, the GAO recommended the secretary of Energy continue with the public consultation and drafting process it began in 2015.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm confirmed that the department is continuing to explore establishing a new site during her June testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“[T]he plan … is to get another site, not Yucca Mountain, but to get another place that is willing to be the home of nuclear waste,” she told Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “It will require some compensation. There is some interest out there, we just have to be sure we complete this consent-based siting process. Hopefully in the fall we’ll have a sense of what the landscape looks like.”

Tags Dianne Feinstein Jennifer Granholm

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