Forging a Path Forward on US Nuclear Waste Management: Option for Policy Makers

Lead PI: Matthew Bowen

Unit Affiliation: Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP)

January 2021 - Ongoing
North America
Project Type: Research Outreach

DESCRIPTION: This report, part of wider work on nuclear energy at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, explains how the United States reached its current stalemate over nuclear waste disposal. It then examines productive approaches in other countries and a few domestic ones that could guide US policy makers through options for improving the prospects of SNF and HLW disposal going forward.

OUTCOMES: Objectively, the United States currently has no discernible disposal program for HLW and SNF. There have been no appropriations from the NWF for Yucca Mountain—the only site that has been approved under current law (i.e., the NWPA) for disposal of commercial SNF—since 2010. The FY 2020 appropriations bill funded waste management efforts at $60 million for generic research—effectively a smaller amount than was appropriated to DOE for waste management in 1976.[152] As the country with the largest nuclear reactor fleet in the world, the United States ought to have a robust nuclear waste disposal program. Several other observations are worthy of attention:

• In the absence of congressional action, payments out of the Judgment Fund to utilities storing spent nuclear fuel on-site will cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars over the coming years. This will not hurt the agency responsible for commercial nuclear waste management (DOE), but communities with shutdown nuclear plants will be unable to reclaim all of their land.
• The cleanup of Cold War nuclear weapons sites in Idaho, South Carolina, and Washington is projected to be a decades-long effort costing hundreds of billions of dollars. However, even if all of the processing and remediation efforts at the sites were completed in 10 or 20 years, the defense SNF and HLW waste packages would have nowhere to go.
• The US Navy will continue to rely on nuclear reactors to power its aircraft carriers and submarines, as there is no viable alternative energy source, and as a result spent naval reactor fuel will steadily accumulate at INL. The 2035 deadline for removal of naval SNF from Idaho in the legally enforceable Batt agreement, however, poses financial and operational risks to the US Navy.
• For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to use research reactors and isotope production facilities. These activities will continue to produce a comparatively very small stream of SNF and HLW that will nevertheless require a disposal pathway.

All of the options presented in chapter 6 could, largely independent of one another, help the United States make progress on management of SNF and HLW. DOE can take some of these actions on its own under existing legal authorities, such as pursuing a repository for defense waste first. Other actions may need agreement between the budget scorekeepers—the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Budget Office, and congressional budget committees—such as improving the budget structure for the waste program. But ultimately, Congress will have to amend existing laws in order for the US SNF and HLW management program to succeed. Given the federal government’s statutory and contractual obligations for timely disposition of SNF and HLW, mounting liabilities for failure to meet those obligations, and the critical role of nuclear energy in meeting climate goals, Congress in particular should not simply leave the US SNF and HLW disposal program at a standstill.