DOE Seal Nuclear Waste Policy Act

In 1982, Congress enacted the first comprehensive legislation regarding spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste disposal. This Federal law is called the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Congress based this law on recommendations from groups such as the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Geological Survey, and several professional scientific organizations.

Spent nuclear fuel is the radioactive by-product of generating electricity at commercial nuclear power plants. Most high-level radioactive waste is the by-product of production at defense facilities. It is these categories of waste for which the Nuclear Waste Policy Act directs the Department of Energy to develop a waste disposal system.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act established the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) within the Department of Energy to develop, construct, and operate a system for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste disposal, including a permanent geologic repository, interim storage capability and a transportation system.

Scientists have studied many options, including leaving the waste at the reactor sites, burying it in the ocean floor, putting it in polar ice sheets, and rocketing it into outer space. Based on a final Environmental Impact Statement prepared in 1980 that evaluated all of these options, deep underground geologic disposal was determined to be the safest solution.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act established a specific funding mechanism for developing the waste disposal system, the Nuclear Waste Fund. Funds are collected from those who use electricity produced by nuclear reactors rather than the general taxpayer. (For additional information, see Chapter Four of OCRWM's current Annual Report to Congress).

Site Selection Process

In the search for a site for the permanent repository, OCRWM had initially conducted a national search for a potential site; eventually nine sites were chosen to be studied in six different states. Then President Ronald Reagan approved three sites from a candidate list of five for more detailed study, a process called site characterization. These locations were: Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

1987 Amendments

In December 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and directed the Department of Energy to study only one site, Yucca Mountain, Nevada, to determine whether it was a suitable site for a repository. The Amendments Act directs that if, at any time Yucca Mountain was found unsuitable, studies are to be stopped immediately, the site restored, and the Department is to report to Congress within six months on a recommended course of action.

The Amendments Act also authorized the Secretary of Energy to site a Monitored Retrievable Storage facility. This facility differs from the repository in that it is an above-ground facility that would store a limited amount of spent nuclear fuel temporarily prior to sending it to a permanent repository. It would also provide flexibility in the system while a repository is being built.

To facilitate siting an interim storage facility, Congress established the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator within the executive branch and independent from the Department of Energy. The Negotiator was responsible for developing an agreement to host such a facility between any willing volunteer and the Federal government. The agreement could include reasonable incentives and financial arrangements, as well as various types of public programs, projects, and problem-solving assistance. After an unsuccessful search for a volunteer host, the Office of the Negotiator was terminated when Congress did not reauthorize funding for the office in 1995.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act, as amended, also includes some additional requirements. It requires spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste to be transported in containers certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the same organization that must license permanent and interim storage facilities. The amendments also require that the Department of Energy abide by the regulations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regarding advance notification to States, local governments and tribal officials prior to transportation. Also, the Department of Energy will provide technical assistance and funding for safety and emergency response training of State, local and tribal officials in affected areas. This funding is available in the planning stages in preparation for future transportation of spent nuclear fuel.

Independent Evaluation

The Amendments Act created the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, an independent establishment within the executive branch of the government. The responsibility of the Board is to evaluate the technical and scientific validity of OCRWM's activities. Members are nominated by the National Academy of Sciences and appointed by the President to serve terms of four years. The Board reports to Congress at least twice each year and presents conclusions from investigations on the current program activities as well as recommendations.

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