The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held an online briefing about pending nuclear waste legislation, including amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and other bills, which would radically alter the way radioactive waste from civilian nuclear power plant is handled and stored. The nuclear waste issue is coming to a head as more and more nuclear plants shut down and enter decommissioning. Irradiated nuclear fuel (a.k.a. “spent” fuel) is currently stored in fuel pools and dry storage canisters on reactor sites, but these systems are unhardened and subject to leaks, failures, and attack. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the process of licensing two private “consolidated interim storage facilities” (CISFs) in New Mexico and Texas, which would store the waste indefinitely in surface-stored or shallowly buried casks that are also subject to leaks and failures. Opening CISFs would trigger thousands of shipments of irradiated fuel over decades, crossing through most states and Congressional districts. All these approaches are fraught with feasibility problems and risks that could profoundly impact public safety, the environment, and the economy.

This was the third EESI briefing on nuclear plant decommissioning and radioactive waste issues. It was a moderated discussion with leading experts and advocates.

This briefing was sponsored by Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, with support from members of the National Decommissioning Working Group.


Robert Alvarez, Associate Fellow, Institute for Policy Studies; former Department of Energy Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment

  • Nuclear power plants are not just about generating electricity, they have also become some of the most significant radioactive waste management sites in the United States.
  • Over the last 60 years, U.S. nuclear reactors generated the largest inventory of spent nuclear fuels (SNF) in the world, about 20 percent of SNF globally.
    • This includes tens of millions of fuel rods, each containing trillions of irradiated uranium pellets.
    • When bombarded with neutrons inside a reactor, five to six percent of the pellets are converted to a myriad of radioactive elements, with half-lives ranging from seconds to millions of years.
    • The materials contained in a spent fuel rod are highly lethal.
  • The U.S. Government Accountability Office informed Congress in 2017 that spent nuclear fuel poses severe risks to humans and the environment and is the source of billions of dollars in financial liabilities for the U.S. government.
  • The Nuclear Waste Policy Act, originally passed in 1982, was designed to control these hazards and requires SNF to be disposed of in a geological repository to prevent its escape for up to one million years.
  • Current stores of spent reactor fuel contain about 20 times the amount of long-lived radioactive material than has been generated by the U.S. nuclear weapons program over the last 50 years.
  • Cesium-137 makes up roughly 40 percent of SNF inventories. It is highly volatile and can cause long-term damage, in part because it has a half-life of about 30 years. The Chernobyl incident released cesium-137 inventories with 1.89 million curies of radiation, rendering an area half the size of New Jersey uninhabitable. In comparison, Unit 3 of the closed San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in San Diego contains cesium-137 inventories amounting to 61.6 million curies of radiation.
  • As of the end of 2018, 82,358 metric tons of SNF were stored at 119 sites in the United States. Currently, there are 95 nuclear power plants operating in 29 states and generating 2,900 metric tons of SNF annually. Thirty-eight reactors in 30 states are in various stages of decommissioning. About 48 percent of U.S. power reactor fuel is stored in 3,200 casks, of which 600 are at permanently closed sites.
  • Heat from radioactive decay is a major safety concern. Heat from decay is enough to melt the zirconium cladding around the spent fuel and destabilize a geological disposal site. Spent fuel requires significant cooling before it can be disposed of underground. The decay heat and radioactivity of spent fuel drop significantly after 100 years but can remain dangerous. Preventing decay heat from reaching dangerous levels can require up to 300 years of active ventilation of the repository.
  • If the water in a reactor spent fuel pool is drained by an earthquake or an act of malice, decay heat can cause a fire that could release enough radioactive material to contaminate an area twice the size of New Jersey. If such an accident occurred at the Limerick nuclear station in Pennsylvania, it could cause 8 million people to relocate and cost over $2 trillion in damages.
  • Some spent fuel pools are holding two to four times what they were originally intended for, and are lacking in precautionary redundant water and electrical supplies. A 2003 study after 9/11 found very severe consequences of a potential act of malice sabotaging the pools. High density storage of SNF in pools should end because: (1) it increases the amount of radioactivity that can escape into the environment; (2) it interferes with air convection, creating a “thermos bottle” effect; and (3) it increases the risk of zirconium ignition. Expanded dry casks storage can reduce risks but the nuclear industry opposes them because using them would cause extended downtimes for reactors.
  • In recent years, U.S. utilities have been moving towards a form of fuel called “high-burnup fuel” that contains a higher percentage of uranium-235. But this fuel causes pellets to expand and the cladding to thin out. It also creates a hydrogen-based form of rust called hydrides, which can cause the cladding to fail. High-burnup spent fuel reaches much higher temperatures than other SNF. Some high-burnup spent fuel at current reactors will have to remain there for the next century to cool off unless a new packaging regime is developed.
  • The U.S. government has failed to follow through on its promise in the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to open a waste disposal site by January 31, 1998. As a result, reactor operators have filed 40 lawsuits seeking compensation for storage expenses. As of FY 2019, $8 billion in settlements have been made, with a total estimated liability of $36.5 billion dollars.
  • Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the U.S. government cannot accept title to SNF until it is received at an open repository site. Nuclear waste disposal is paid for by the collection of user fees from reactor operators. Because no open repository sites have yet been constructed, a federal court stopped reactor operator payments to the fund in 2014. The Nuclear Waste Fund’s balance as of 2019 is $40.9 billion. These funds are meant to finance the permanent disposal of spent fuel generated by commercial nuclear reactors. Congress has not approved resumption of fund collection for the previously planned Yucca Mountain disposal site.
  • Costs for consolidated interim storage sites are not borne by the U.S. government, unless title is transferred by amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Efforts are underway to have the DOE assume title of SNF for a “pilot” storage site of currently “stranded” waste—waste at reactors that have closed or are soon to be closed.
  • Existing SNF will have to be repackaged because the current generation of dry casks was intended for short-term on-site storage and not geological disposal. The cumbersome nature of the casks, high decay heat, and a high density of spent fuel rods make them too dangerous.
  • Costs of repackaging at a centralized storage site are large. According to the Energy Department, the per-assembly cost for a standardized transportation and disposal canister (STAD) ranges from $33,400 to $112,000.
  • Costs of various pre-disposal activities are not covered under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act but are likely to be quite large. Alvarez conducted a study of pre-disposal costs for the Columbia Generating Station and found that the total cost for consolidated interim storage and repackaging is likely to range from $384 million to $1.25 billion.
  • The basic approach undertaken in this country for the storage and disposal of SNF needs to be fundamentally revamped to address vulnerabilities of SNF in pools, high-burnup SNF, and dry cask integrity risks. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Energy Department need to develop a transparent and comprehensive road map identifying the key elements of interim storage, transportation, repackaging, and final disposal. Otherwise, the United States will remain dependent on “leaps of faith” that set the stage for large, unfunded payments in the future.

Don Hancock, Director of the Nuclear Waste Program, Southwest Research and Information Center

  • For 33 years, legislation has failed to create multiple operating repositories and at least one consolidated storage site.
  • The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 outlines three principles: First, SNF and high-level waste (HLW) are a national problem that require safe and environmentally acceptable methods of disposal. Second, the federal government is responsible for SNF and HLW disposal in geological repositories. Third, generators are responsible for interim storage and payments for SNF disposal (via the Nuclear Waste Fund).
  • The Act contains a specific timeline of actions to be taken. The President was supposed to recommend the first repository site in 1987 and a second site in 1990. The first repository was supposed to be operating by January 1, 1998. The law included provisions related to notifying states and tribes, how they were to participate, and funding for their participation. State governors or legislatures and tribal governments could issue Notices of Disapproval for the sites, but these could be overridden by a majority vote in Congress.
  • The design of the Act was influenced by an earlier attempt to create a repository. A repository site had been chosen near Lyons, Kansas, and was meant to be operating by 1975. The state objected due to technical problems and the site was abandoned. In March 1979, an interagency review group considered options for state consultation, including state veto and consultation and concurrence. In December 1979, Congress authorized the first geological repository in the United States, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. The plant was not for SNF or HLW, but rather for waste related to defense products. New Mexico was offered “consultation and cooperation.”
  • In 1987, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act stopped consideration of other potential disposal sites and planned to proceed only with a site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The Act annulled and revoked a proposed monitored retrievable storage (MRS) site in Tennessee. It offered benefits for Nevada or any state that would receive an MRS site. It also established the Office of Nuclear Waste Negotiator to negotiate with a governor or Indian Tribe to receive an MRS or repository site and consult with affected entities, such as local governments. It provided that the site agreement must be passed as a federal law.
  • In 1990-95, two people were appointed as nuclear waste negotiators and tried to find volunteers to take the waste. None were found. Grants were issued to some tribes and counties to study the possibility of an MRS facility.
  • One result of the process was a movement for private consolidated storage. In 1997-2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved to license a private fuel storage (PFS) site in Utah, over strong citizen, state, and Congressional opposition. In 2006, the license was issued, but the Bureau of Land Management denied right-of-way to transport fuel into the site and the Bureau of Indian Affairs refused the lease. The PFS was never constructed. From 2016, the companies Holtec and Integrated Storage Partners have proposed consolidated storage sites in New Mexico and Texas over strong citizen and state opposition.
  • Congress appropriated roughly $13 billion for the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and Yucca Mountain from 1983-2010, but no funds have been appropriated since 2010. The House subcommittee for energy and water appropriations has included Yucca Mountain funding until FY 2020, but its Senate equivalent has not. From FY 2013-2020, the Senate subcommittee for energy and water appropriations has included funding for private consolidated storage, amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
  • In FY 2020, Congress included no funding for Yucca Mountain or consolidated storage. In FY 2021, House Energy and Water appropriations included no funding for Yucca Mountain or consolidated storage, but $7.5 million for Nuclear Waste Fund oversight and $20 million for federal interim storage program. The Senate bill includes $27.5 million for other purposes: $10 million for private storage and $17.5 million for plans.
  • Five conclusions:
    • Administrations, Congress, and the nuclear industry have failed to implement the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
    • Congress has not adopted any new nuclear waste legislation since the 1987 amendments.
    • Meanwhile, commercial spent nuclear fuel stored on site has increased from 16,000 to 85,000 metric tons.
    • No state or tribe will consent to host the only repository or consolidated storage site.
    • No legislation for publicly accepted, technically sound changes has thus far been introduced.

Diane D’Arrigo, Radioactive Waste Project Director, Nuclear Information and Resource Service

  • Irradiated fuel is deadly and long-lasting. Of nuclear waste products from military and civilian applications in the United States, 95 percent of total radiation from nuclear waste in the U.S. comes from civilian “spent fuel” and “low level waste,” which is meant to be transported to interim storage or a repository.
  • Strong objections to Yucca Mountain can be made on technical, political, sovereignty, environmental justice, and economic grounds.
  • Consolidated interim storage (CIS), previously called monitored retrievable storage (MRS) or away from reactor storage (AFR), would consolidate waste from multiple reactors before it is transported to a geological repository. Under current law, the title to the waste cannot be transferred to the federal government unless a permanent site is constructed. Some pending bills allow a title transfer without a permanent storage site.
  • Consolidating waste would require extensive transportation. Each container of waste contains more cesium than was released in the Chernobyl accident. The storage canisters currently being proposed to move the waste would require significant upgrades to retain their integrity during transport.
  • Transporting the fuel would be dangerous and expose 300 of the 435 U.S. Congressional districts to potential accidents. Still, interim storage would bring us no closer to a permanent solution. It was projected to take 30-50 years to move 70,000 metric tons of waste to Yucca Mountain. The proposed Texas and New Mexico sites would require moving around 210,000 total metric tons of waste long distances from eastern states. The Texas site would store 40,000 metric tons of waste above ground for 40 years with plans to extend the time frame. The New Mexico site would store 173,000 metric tons for up to 120 years slightly below-ground with the tops of casks exposed. This would total more than three times the waste targeted for Yucca.
  • The transport plan is currently to move the waste by rail. But other transportation modes such as barging—including through major rivers and the Great Lakes—and heavy trucks would be required as well. The Texas Council on Environmental Quality pointed out in a report that sabotage and terrorism are potential risks.
  • Current containers are not sufficient for transit, making re-containerization necessary. Pools or dry transport facilities will be needed, but pools are currently being dismantled and no dry facilities currently exist. Containers must be monitored for cracks and leaks as they age.
  • There has been a movement for greater hardened on-site storage (HOSS) at reactor sites. This has led to the development of standards for containers. One of these is that containers should be monitored in real time to prevent failure, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided that monitoring containers is unnecessary as part of a broader deregulatory push.
  • Environmental justice is a major consideration. The proposed Yucca Mountain site is on Western Shoshone sacred lands, violating the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863. The two proposed sites in Texas and New Mexico are located in largely Latinx communities.
  • The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2019 (H.R.2699/S.2917), Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2019 (S.1234), and Storage and Transportation of Residual and Excess Nuclear Fuel Act of 2019 (H.R.3136) would all allow transfer of title for nuclear waste to the federal government for CIS purposes without the construction of a permanent repository. S.1234 would set up a new administration to site CIS and would require consent, but not for facilities already in the licensing process. H.R.2699/S.2917 would restart the Yucca Mountain process, despite over 200 contentions by the state of Nevada and Western Shoshone. H.R.3136 focuses on interim storage and would require the Department of Energy to draw up an interim storage administration plan. Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions R&D Act (H.R.8258) would encourage CIS, require reprocessing of waste, and encourage development of new reactors, increasing hazardous waste.
  • In the lame duck session, appropriations could come up. The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (S.903/H.R. 3306) would subsidize new nuclear waste production by reversing requirements for government agencies to get the best price for electricity. It could move by being attached to the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R.2500), which is a must-pass.
  • The Stranded Act (S.1985/H.R.5608) would provide funding to communities with closed reactors that still have waste. The Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act of 2020 (H.R.8277) also includes compensation, and enables states and tribes to have greater involvement in the nuclear plant decommissioning process, which is currently controlled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the utility. The Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act (H.R.1544/S.649) would require community consent for nuclear plants to be put in place. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 2019 (S.947/H.R.3783) would reauthorize and expand coverage of compensation for workers exposed to radiation.
  • There has been an ongoing push within several federal agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to have certain kinds of nuclear waste reclassified as ordinary waste eligible to be dumped in landfills instead of licensed nuclear sites. It is now called “very low-level waste,” although the category is broad enough to include nearly all nuclear waste products besides spent fuel. The NRC would authorize “very low-level waste” sites to release as much radiation as an operating nuclear reactor.


What are the radiological consequences of a loss of integrity of a spent fuel cask or canister? How might those consequences vary depending on the characteristics of the canister?

  • Alvarez: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not done a serious quantitative study of what would happen in a major cask failure. They have provided some information for emergency responders for modeling purposes. They modeled an act of malice involving someone placing a shaped charge on a cask. A substantial amount of cesium would be released, about 34,000 curies. The point that I think we need to understand is that other nations, particularly Germany and Switzerland, have been much more careful and cautious about storage. They added another foot of containment on the reactor domes, and they placed their spent fuel into very hard storage facilities.
  • Hancock: One, if there ever was a serious accident, it would be a major national and international concern. The problems include psychological issues—the trauma caused by such an accident. The second point is the transportation issue. An accident in transportation would be in an uncontained situation, as opposed to at a power plant where there are people who are used to trying to deal with the fuel. Transportation could be in a big city or a rural area. The consequences could be severe in terms of contamination and the long-term effects could be bad, both for human health and the environment.
  • D’Arrigo: The containers are big and heavy and robust, but they are not designed to withstand a fire longer than half an hour or above 1,475 degrees. An analysis carried out by Radioactive Waste Management Associates suggested that if a radioactive cask had been in the Baltimore Tunnel fire [in 2001], about 150 people would have died and the costs of damage would have depended on the radioactivity’s spread. You also have some canisters that only have four or six fuel assemblies and others that have as many as 37. So how much of the radioactivity is in the container and how much gets out before there’s some kind of stoppage of the leak? If a container were to fall into a body of water, there are criteria for designs that should only be in water for an hour or maybe 65 hours. But the containers are extremely heavy. So would we be able to get there, locate it, and pull it out in time? The Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office says that cleanup costs could exceed $620 million in a rural area and $9.5 billion in an urban area to raze and rebuild the most heavily contaminated square mile. If you are spreading out radioactivity, we are not even going to know about all the cancers that would result from that. There will potentially be immediate problems for emergency responders and people in the vicinity. It may not be a very high risk, but the more shipments we have, the higher the risks. And we are talking now about thousands and thousands of shipments over 30 or 50 years just to a temporary site, and then again to a permanent site.

If the bills discussed enable the Department of Energy to take the title to nuclear waste so it could be shipped to consolidated interim storage facilities, what would the potential liability be for the federal government?

  • Alvarez: Depending on the size of the storage site, the high end of the costs could be $23 billion and the low end is probably $7 billion.
  • Hancock: Those are good estimates that we have right now. But it depends on whether everything works perfectly or not. In the case of the three sites that have been considered for private fuel storage that I talked about, and the Texas and New Mexico sites, there will be major conflicts if the proposals are to go forward, with states and also people along the transportation routes objecting. That could significantly delay things.
  • Alvarez: One thing that is not clear to me about this legislation is that these reactors as a whole generate about 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel a year. So when you assume title at the reactor, does that mean the federal government is responsible for building all the dry casks and managing all the waste that comes out of the reactor, in addition to making sure it can be safely transported to a site the government will have to pay for?
  • D’Arrigo: There are three big pots of money here that the private companies that are building consolidated storage want to go after. They want to go after decommissioning funds to the extent that they can, they want to go after the damages that have been given to the private owners of the fuel because of the legal decision that there was no 1998 repository, and they want to go after the Nuclear Waste Fund that was designed primarily for permanent disposal. We have things that need to be done with the nuclear reactors themselves—we need decommissioning. The permanent repository needs to be sought. And if the money ends up being waylaid for consolidated storage, it could take away from the other important activities the money’s been set aside for.
  • Hancock: When you talk about liability, the assumption on consolidated storage is that it would be temporary. Since there is no permanent repository, the liability would likely last a long time. The federal government would have title to the waste at the reactor and at the consolidated sites, which would not be long-term. The ultimate cost of this has not been calculated, but it would be enormous.

What about environmental justice considerations? Do any of you have any thoughts about whether any of the proposed pieces of legislation you have described today have the environmental justice considerations you would like to see, or is this something Congress needs to pay greater attention to? Are there any fair ways to compensate communities that host nuclear waste?

  • Hancock: The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which Diane mentioned, tackles environmental justice issues. But no comprehensive storage and disposal bill that deals with all these issues (the liability questions, the participation questions, the environmental justice questions) has been introduced. We have had 33 years of not doing it and it is going to take us a while to get good legislation. The original NWPA was clear that there needed to be multiple repositories. That’s important so that it is not being put on any one state, any one tribe. So there hopefully would not be the environmental justice concerns that were raised when Congress, in effect, said “we are picking a site and choosing somebody” in 1987 with Yucca Mountain and Western Shoshone land.
  • Alvarez: The raw truth about consolidated interim storage is that a great deal of this spent fuel will be stored on-site for a long period of time after the reactor shuts down. And when reactors shut down, communities will lose their tax base. There has to be some way to deal with that. We dealt with that in terms of the closure of the nuclear weapons sites in the late 1980s, but these were sites owned by the government so it was relatively straightforward. The original concept of the NWPA was regional equity. Why should one state that does not draw any benefits from nuclear power become the end of a radioactive waste funnel because they are in a remote location out West? But before the election in 1988, this provoked such an outrage that Congress picked Yucca Mountain in the dead of night.
  • D’Arrigo: With regard to some compensation—I am not saying it is enough—the Stranded Act (S.1985/H.R.5608) is designed to provide some compensation for communities with closed reactors. And H.R.8277, the Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act of 2020, takes in the Stranded Act compensation and adds to the decommissioning process with more input from the local community. That is the beginning of something that really needs to happen. With regard to whether there a fair amount of compensation for hosting nuclear waste, that was what the Nuclear Waste Negotiator was trying to ascertain when looking for a volunteer state or tribe that would take the waste. They were offering increasing amounts of money and getting more involved and committed to it, and in the end nobody wanted to bite the apple completely. There is a moral dilemma. Obviously poorer communities are more desperate for projects to happen and so they might feel that they have to take some amount of money. But there is also the impact this is going to have on existing vibrant communities. There are cattle farmers, pecan growers, and oil and gas companies in the Texas and New Mexico areas that have a growing economy, and they do not want to host nuclear waste. A lot of the people in those communities are poorer, but regardless they have said no. So, what does it take to get a community to say yes? One of the things that has been proposed is that instead of Congress being so heavy-handed and superseding state and local laws and regulations, that they actually take away the exemptions from nuclear. If they allow states to have greater regulatory authority, there might be more openness to having a facility. A lot of the nuclear waste transport would go through poorer communities. The waste needs to be moved once to permanent isolation and not routinely back and forth to the least common denominator.

Highlights compiled by Joseph Glandorf

Speaker Slides