Commercial Nuclear Waste: Effects of a Termination of the Yucca Mountain Repository Program and Lessons Learned Page: 2 of 80
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i G A O COMMERCIAL NUCLEAR WASTE
Accountability * Integrity * Reliability
Hei l h Effects of a Termination of the Yucca Mountain
I I S Repository Program and Lessons Learned
Highlights of GAO-11-229, a report to
Why GAO Did This Study
Spent nuclear fuel-considered very
hazardous-is accumulating at
commercial reactor sites in 33 states.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of
1982, as amended, directs the
Department of Energy (DOE) to
dispose of this waste in a repository
at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. In June
2008, DOE submitted a license
application for the repository, but in
March 2010 moved to withdraw it.
However, the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) or the courts-as
a result of lawsuits-could compel
DOE to resume the licensing process.
This report examines (1) the basis for
DOE's decision to terminate the
Yucca Mountain program, (2) the
termination steps DOE has taken and
their effects, (3) the major impacts if
the repository were terminated, and
(4) the principal lessons learned.
GAO reviewed documents and
interviewed knowledgeable parties.
What GAO Recommends
GAO suggests that Congress consider
whether a more predictable funding
mechanism would enhance future
efforts and whether an independent
organization would be more effective.
GAO also recommends that DOE
assess remaining risks of the
shutdown; create a plan to resume
licensing if necessary; and report on
federal property and its disposition.
NRC concurred with the facts in a
draft of this report, but DOE strongly
disagreed with the draft and the
recommendations, questioning the
veracity of GAO's information. GAO
continues to believe its findings and
recommendations are sound.
View GAO-11-229 or key components.
For more information, contact Mark Gaffigan
at (202) 512-3841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What GAO Found
DOE decided to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program because,
according to DOE officials, it is not a workable option and there are better
solutions that can achieve a broader national consensus. DOE did not cite
technical or safety issues. DOE also did not identify alternatives, but it did
create a Blue Ribbon Commission to evaluate and recommend alternatives.
Amid uncertainties about the status of the repository license, DOE took an
ambitious set of steps to dismantle the Yucca Mountain program by
September 30, 2010. DOE has taken steps to preserve scientific and other
data, eliminated the jobs of all federal employees working on the program,
and terminated program activities by contractors. DOE also disposed of
property from its Las Vegas offices by declaring the property abandoned. This
procedure saved DOE time and costs, according to officials. However, DOE's
documentation for this process was limited, given the variety and volume of
property disposed of. In addition, DOE did not finalize a plan for the
shutdown, nor did it identify or assess risks of the shutdown. Both steps are
required under federal internal control standards and DOE orders. Some of
DOE's shutdown steps would likely hinder progress, should NRC or the courts
require DOE to resume the license application review process.
Terminating the Yucca Mountain repository program could bring benefits,
such as allowing DOE to search for a more acceptable alternative, which
could help avoid the costly delays experienced by Yucca Mountain. However,
there is no guarantee that a more acceptable or less costly alternative will be
identified; termination could instead restart a costly and time-consuming
process to find and develop an alternative permanent solution. It would also
likely prolong the need for interim storage of spent nuclear fuel at reactor
sites, which would have financial and other impacts. For example, the federal
government bears part of the storage costs as a result of industry lawsuits
over DOE's failure to take custody of commercial spent nuclear fuel in 1998,
as required. These costs exceed $15.4 billion and could grow by an additional
$500 million a year after 2020.
Published reports and our interviews-with federal, state, and local
government officials and representatives of various national organizations-
suggest two broad lessons for developing a future waste management
strategy. First, social and political opposition to a permanent repository, not
technical issues, is the key obstacle. Important tools for overcoming such
opposition include transparency, economic incentives, and education. Second,
it is important that a waste management strategy have consistent policy,
funding, and leadership, especially since the process will likely take decades.
Some federal and other stakeholders suggested that a more predictable
funding mechanism and an independent organization may be better suited
than DOE to overseeing nuclear waste management.
United States Government Accountability Office
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United States. Government Accountability Office. Commercial Nuclear Waste: Effects of a Termination of the Yucca Mountain Repository Program and Lessons Learned, report, April 8, 2011; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc299491/m1/2/: accessed September 21, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.