Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management

views updated

Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management

Humans have been using nuclear materials for nearly 50 years. Nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons account for the largest volume of these materials, while industrial, medical, and research applications account for smaller volumes. One of the largest single problems involved with the use of nuclear materials is the volume of wastes resulting from these applications. By one estimate, 8,0009,000 metric tons (8,8169,918 tons) of high-level radioactive wastes alone are produced in the United States every year. It is something of a surprise, therefore, to learn that as late as 1982, the United States had no plan for disposing of the radioactive wastes produced by its commercial, industrial, research, and defense operations.

In that year, the United States Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act establishing national policy for the disposal of radioactive waste . Responsibility for the implementation of this policy was assigned to the U.S. Department of Energy through the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM). OCRWM manages federal programs for recommending, constructing, and operating repositories for the disposal of high-level radioactive wastes and spent nuclear fuel. It is also responsible for arranging for the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel and for research, development, and demonstration of techniques for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

In addition, OCRWM oversees the Nuclear Waste Fund, also established by the 1982 act. The fund was established to enable the federal government to recover all costs of developing a disposal system and of disposing of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel. It is paid for by companies that produce nuclear power , power consumers, and those involved in the use of nuclear materials for defense purposes.

OCRWM has published a number of short pamphlets dealing with the problem of waste disposal. They cover topics such as "Nuclear Waste Disposal," "What Will a Nuclear Waste Repository Look Like?" "What Is Spent Nuclear Fuel?" "Can Nuclear Waste Be Transported Safely?" and "How Much High-Level Nuclear Waste Is There?"

OCRWM experienced a number of setbacks in the first decade of its existence. No state was willing to allow the construction of a high-level nuclear waste repository within its borders. The technology for immobilizing wastes seemed still too primitive to guarantee that wastes would not escape in to the environment .

Eventually, however, OCRWM announced that it had chosen a site under Yucca Mountain in southeastern Nevada. The site lies on the boundaries of the Nevada Test Site and Nellis Air Force Base. It is near the town of Beatty, 100 mi (161 km) northwest of Las Vegas. The site has been studied since 1977 and should be ready to receive wastes early sometime around 2010. Some residents of Nevada are unhappy with the choice of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository, however, and continue to fight OCRWM's decision.

[David E. Newton ]



Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Toll Free: (800) 225-6972, Email: [email protected], <>