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Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982)

Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982)

Joseph P. Tomain

Regulation of nuclear power was transferred from military to civilian control with the passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Although the dangers of radioactivity were known before the act, it was not until the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) (P.L. 97-425, 96 Stat. 2201) that the back end of the fuel cycle was addressed.

HAZARDS OF NUCLEAR WASTE

The central problem of nuclear waste derives from the facts that radioactivity may last for many thousands of years and must be contained so it no longer presents a significant risk to human health or to the environment. Nuclear waste is generated from many sources. The mining and milling process generates radioactive debris known as mill tailings, which constitute a low-level source of radioactivity. Mill tailings are addressed in the Uranium Mill Tailings and Radiation Control Act of 1978. Radioactive materials are also generated from medical and industrial uses. Certain low-level wastes are addressed in the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985. By far the largest source of radioactive waste results from the generation of electricity by commercial nuclear reactors, which produce tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel. The primary problem at commercial nuclear power sites is that temporary storage facilities for spent fuel are full and require expansion until a permanent disposal site is completed. In addition, thousands of tons of nuclear waste are generated through military uses.

The NWPA requires the Department of Energy (DOE) to dispose of nuclear waste safely and with environmentally acceptable methods in a geologic formation with the intent to bury designated waste at underground disposal sites. The National Academy of Sciences began looking for disposal sites in the mid-1950s. Preliminary screening identified four large potentially promising regions of either salt domes or bedded salt mines. These formations offer relatively safe space for nuclear waste because they restrict the flow of water that can spread radioactivity.

In 1970 the Atomic Energy Commission identified specific disposal sites, and in the late 1970s, the National Waste Terminal Storage Program helped develop the technology necessary for repository licensing, construction, operation, and closure. In 1980 the Department of Energy, after engaging in an environmental impact statement process, selected mined geologic repositories as the preferred storage space for spent commercial nuclear fuel. All of those efforts culminated in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.

PROVISIONS OF THE NWPA

Although the federal government has the primary responsibility for permanent disposal of such waste, the costs of disposal are intended to be the responsibility of generators and owners of the waste and spent fuel. The act also recognizes an important role for public and state participation. The reason for the broad participation of other sovereigns is because repositories must be located somewhere and choosing a site is, as correctly predicted, controversial. Thus, the statute involves the secretary of energy, the president, Congress, the states, Native American tribes, and the general public in the site selection process.

In 1983 the Department of Energy located nine sites in six states as potential repository sites. Based on initial studies, the president approved three sites in Hannaford, Washington; Defsmith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada. In 1987 Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, directing the Department of Energy to study only Yucca Mountain, which is now the designated site awaiting NRC approval. The selection of Yucca Mountain has not been without controversy. In Nevada v. Watkins the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the state's challenge of legislative authority for this decision. Pursuant to NWPA, Nevada exercised a veto over site selection, and that veto was overridden in both houses of Congress.

CHALLENGES TO THE ACT

Since the passage of the NWPA, the siting program has faced a number of challenges, including legislative mandates, regulatory modification, fluctuating funding levels, and the evolving and often conflicting needs and expectations of various and diverse interest groups. The challenges from scientists, citizens, legislators, and governors all complicated the process, generating increased Congressional dissatisfaction.

The identification and scheduling of disposal sites have not been finalized as of the date of this writing. In 1997 Congress directed the DOE to complete a "viability assessment" of the Yucca Mountain site. The viability assessment was codified into law by the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, which directed that no later than September 3, 1998, the secretary of energy provide to the president and Congress a viability assessment of the Yucca Mountain site. The viability assessment must include:

  1. preliminary design concept of the repository and waste package
  2. total system performance assessment describing the probable behavior of the repository relative to overall system performance
  3. plan and cost estimate for remaining work required to retain a license
  4. an estimate of costs to construct and operate the repository

The NWPA envisioned that site selection would be completed in 1998 and that a facility would then be available to accept waste. That date, of course, has passed. The site characterization process and the politics involved have become increasingly complex. In 1987 the DOE announced an opening date in 2003, a date that also was not met. In 1989 a further delay was announced by the Department of Energy to 2010.

In December 1998 the DOE submitted its assessment to the president and Congress. The viability assessment indicated that the site required further study, although it supported a recommendation of the site to the president. The Department of Energy now seeks final authorization from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop the site as a repository. Consequently, Yucca Mountain is currently earmarked for receipt of waste upon Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval.

Nuclear wastes are currently located in 129 sites in thirty-nine different states, which include seventy-two commercial nuclear reactor sites, a commercial storage site, forty-three research sites, and ten Department of Energy sites. Once the major disposal site is finalized, the secretary of energy is authorized to enter into contracts with owners and generators of spent nuclear fuel for storage. In addition, transportation plans must be undertaken in an environmentally safe and sound manner. Although the commercial nuclear power market has been stagnant for nearly two decades, nuclear waste disposal issues continue to be an important part of the nation's energy planning.

See also: Atomic Energy Acts; Hazardous Materials Transportation Act.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bosselman, Fred, Jim Rossi, and Jacqueline Lang Weaver. Energy, Economics and the Environment. New York: Foundation Press, 2000.

Carter, Luther J. Nuclear Imperatives and Public Trust: Dealing with Radioactive Waste. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, Inc., 1987.

Tomain, Joseph P. Nuclear Power Transformation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Union of Concerned Scientists. Safety Second: The NRC and America's Nuclear Power Plant. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Zillman, Donald N. "Nuclear Power." In Energy Law and Policy for the 21st Century, ed. The Energy Law Group. Denver, CO: Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation, 2000.

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Nuclear Waste

NUCLEAR WASTE

Nuclear waste has many sources that are grouped into two broad categories. The first category is nuclear fuel-cycle waste, which consists of any waste arising from the separation and processing of uranium to fabricate nuclear fuel, from nuclear reactors used for any purpose, and from any sub-sequent uses of radioactive materials contained in nuclear fuel or produced in a reactor. Uses of nuclear reactors include generation of electricity; production of plutonium for use in nuclear weapons; production of radioisotopes for use in medicine, industry, or commerce; and research and development. The different types of nuclear fuel-cycle waste include the following:

  • High-level radioactive waste arises mainly when spent nuclear fuel from a reactor is chemically reprocessed to remove plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. This highly hazardous waste contains high concentrations of radioactive fission products, such as strontium-90, iodine-131, and cesium-137, and long-lived radionuclides heavier than uranium, such as plutonium and americium.
  • Spent nuclear fuel, which resembles high-level waste, is waste if it is not chemically reprocessed. Spent fuel from nuclear power reactors in the United States is not reprocessed at the present time, but reprocessing is carried out in other countries.
  • Transuranic waste arises mainly when plutonium removed from spent fuel is used in fabricating nuclear weapons. This waste mostly contains plutonium and other heavy radionuclides, such as americium, in lower concentrations than in high-level waste or spent fuel, although there are exceptions.
  • Mill tailings are the very large volumes of residues containing naturally occurring radionuclides that arise mainly when uranium is chemically separated from ores for use in nuclear fuel. The radiation hazard of mill tailings is due mainly to the elevated levels of radium and high emanation rates of radon gas.
  • Low-level radioactive waste includes any nuclear fuel-cycle waste other than high-level waste, spent fuel, transuranic waste, and mill tailings. Low-level waste arises in many activities, including operations at nuclear facilities; uses of reactorproduced radioisotopes in medicine, industry, or commerce; cleanup of radioactively contaminated sites; and research and development. Most low-level waste contains relatively low concentrations of radionuclides, but some wastes can be as hazardous as high-level waste or spent fuel.

The second broad category includes any nuclear waste other than the nuclear fuel-cycle wastes described above. Nuclear waste in this category thus includes naturally occurring or acceleratorproduced radioactive material (NARM). Waste containing naturally occurring radioactive material, such as potassium-40, uranium, thorium, or radium, does not include mill tailings. Important wastes of this type include spent radium sources, waste from removal of radionuclides from drinking water, residues from processing of various ores or minerals and other industrial activities, coal ash from electricity generation, and phosphate waste from fertilizer production. Accelerator-produced waste includes accelerator targets any waste arising in the production of medical radioisotopes in accelerators (such as cyclotrons), and subsequent uses of these radioisotopes. Accelerator-produced waste contains mainly short-lived radionuclides and often resembles low-level radioactive waste. In general, NARM waste, especially waste containing naturally occurring radioactive material, has received less attention than nuclear fuel-cycle waste.

David C. Kocher

(see also: Not In My Backyard [NIMBY]; Nuclear Power; Risk Assessment, Risk Management )

Bibliography

League of Women Voters Education Fund (1993). The Nuclear Waste Primer: A Handbook for Citizens, revised edition. New York: Lyons & Burford.

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nuclear waste

nuclear waste Residues containing radioactive substances. After uranium, plutonium and other useful fission products have been removed, some long-lived radioactive elements remain, such as caesium-137 and strontium-90. The storage of nuclear waste is a major environmental issue.

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nuclear waste

nu·cle·ar waste • n. radioactive waste material, for example from the use or reprocessing of nuclear fuel.

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nuclear waste

nuclear waste: see radioactive waste.

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nuclear waste

nuclear waste See RADIOACTIVE WASTE.

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nuclear waste

nuclear waste See radioactive waste.

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