GAO calls on Congress to break used fuel disposal impasse

27 September 2021

Congress needs to take action to break the impasse over a permanent solution for commercial used nuclear fuel, according to a report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report identifies four matters for congressional consideration - including amending legislation to authorise a new consent-based siting process and restructuring the Nuclear Waste Fund - and recommends that the Department of Energy (DOE) finalise its consent-based siting process.

An on-site dry storage facility for used fuel at the Vermont Yankee site (Image: Holtec)

US nuclear waste management policy is enshrined in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which established federal responsibility for all civil used fuel and obliged the government - through the DOE - to begin removing used fuel from nuclear facilities by 1998 for disposal in a federal facility. The act was amended in 1987 to designate Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the sole site for the repository for 70,000 tonnes of high-level waste.

"However, in 2010, DOE terminated its efforts to license a repository at Yucca Mountain, and Congress stopped funding activities related to the site," GAO notes. "Since then, policymakers have been at an impasse on how to meet the federal disposal obligation, with significant financial consequences for taxpayers."

As of September 2020, the federal government had paid nuclear power plant owners almost USD9 billion in damages for the costs they incurred to store used fuel on-site, according to DOE's Fiscal Year 2020 Agency Financial Report. The GAO said about 86,000 tonnes of used fuel is stored on-site at 75 operating or shutdown nuclear power plants in 33 states, an amount that grows by about 2000 tonnes each year.

"These costs will continue to grow until the federal government develops and approves a consolidated interim storage facility or permanent disposal repository and takes custody of the fuel," GAO said. "Specifically, in its Fiscal Year 2020 Agency Financial Report, DOE estimated the remaining federal liability for interim storage costs would be about USD30.6 billion."

GAO has now released a report - titled Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel: Congressional Action Needed to Break Impasse and Develop a Permanent Disposal Solution - which examines actions that experts identified as necessary to develop a solution for used nuclear fuel disposal. GAO reviewed DOE and other agency documents and interviewed 20 experts and 25 stakeholders from industry, non-governmental organisations, and tribal and state groups.

The USA currently has "an ad hoc system" for managing commercial used nuclear fuel which, GAO said, can affect future disposal decisions and costs. "Nearly all of the experts we interviewed said an integrated strategy is essential to developing a solution for commercial spent nuclear fuel and potentially reducing programmatic costs. However, DOE cannot fully develop and implement such a strategy without congressional action."


GAO identifies four matters for congressional consideration. Firstly, Congress should consider amending the NWPA to authorise a new consent-based process for siting, developing and constructing consolidated interim storage and permanent repository facilities for commercial used nuclear fuel. Secondly, Congress should consider creating a mechanism, such as an independent board, to provide political insulation and continuity of leadership for managing the used nuclear fuel disposal programme. Congress should also consider restructuring the Nuclear Waste Fund so funds used to develop, construct and operate a permanent repository are based on the commercial used nuclear fuel programme's life cycle costs. Lastly, Congress should consider directing 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 used nuclear fuel.

In 2015, DOE began efforts to engage the public and develop a draft consent-based siting process, but it has not finalised this process. The draft includes elements that nearly all experts agreed are critical for an effective siting process. "Finalising the draft could help position DOE to implement a consent-based process for consolidated interim storage facilities and/or permanent geologic repositories if Congress amends the NWPA to allow for storage and disposal options other than, or in addition to, the Yucca Mountain repository," GAO said.

Accordingly, the report recommends the Secretary of Energy direct the DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy to continue its efforts to engage the public and finalise its draft consent-based siting process.

GAO said it provided a draft of its report for review and comment to DOE, the Department of Justice and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In its comments, DOE stated that it concurred with its recommendation. NRC stated it was in general agreement with the report. DOE and NRC also provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated throughout the report. The Department of Justice, it said, did not have any comments on the report. It is now sending copies of the finalised report to the appropriate congressional committees and the Secretary of Energy, the Attorney General and the Chairman of the NRC.

"Ultimately, finding a solution for managing and disposing of commercial spent nuclear fuel is a challenge that will require thoughtful and intentional decision-making and planning," GAO said. "Even then, there is no guarantee of success. However, several other countries - including Canada, Finland and Sweden - have made progress toward developing solutions after facing a similar impasse. These countries' experiences, along with the recommendations from experts, provide useful lessons for a path forward, in particular concerning engaging stakeholders and cultivating public trust."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News