Approved by the Energy, Environment, and Water Policy Committee on March 3, 2023
Approved by the Public Policy and Practice Committee on August 23, 2023
Adopted by the Board of Direction on October 17, 2023
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recognizes that hazardous high-level radioactive waste disposal without planning and management endangers public health and the environment. To address these challenges, ASCE supports:
- Permanent geologic storage as an effective means of safely and securely isolating high-level nuclear wastes and spent nuclear fuel (collectively “HLW”) for the protection of human health and the environment, which temporary storage facilities do not adequately provide.
- Federal legislation to solve the growing problem of HLW storage through the establishment of a well-engineered repository program encompassing HLW interim-storage practices, transportation, and safe, long-term storage in repositories to address the on-site accumulation of spent nuclear fuel from power plants.
- Federal legislation providing for research and development for the reprocessing and recycling of existing and future spent nuclear fuel.
- Closure of the nuclear fuel cycle through reprocessing, for the long-term good of the nation and the preservation of uranium resources.
- Continuing support for vitrification efforts as an effective means of stabilization of HLW.
- Research for more effective and less expensive stabilization methods, including improved vitrification processes.
Commercial electric power generation, nuclear weapons production, the operation of naval reactors, and research and development activities have produced and will continue to produce HLW. These radioactive materials have accumulated since the mid-1940s at sites now managed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and since 1957 at limited commercial reactors and storage facilities across the country. The wide distribution of HLW also represents an elevated risk to the general public, particularly in cases where the HLW may escape containment. Efforts like vitrification are under way to stabilize the wastes and reduce the risks associated with HLW at facilities with the largest quantities.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is tasked with the development of the first HLW repository planned for Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The NRC issued an Environmental Impact Statement Supplement in May 2016, however, the licensing decision for the facility remains suspended in legal proceedings. In 2021, DOE announced that they would not support HLW disposal at Yucca Mountain, leaving the nation with growing amounts of HLW and without any long-term disposal options, nor any plans for such.
The current strategy for managing high level nuclear wastes and spent fuel is stated in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA), which limits the amount of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste that can be placed in the nation's first geologic repository to 70,000 metric tons of heavy metal. The development of the first HLW repository at Yucca Mountain has stalled no new plans for a HLW disposal have been developed. Furthermore, HLW volumes now exceed the planned limits of Yucca Mountain.
The wide distribution of HLW also represents an elevated risk to the general public, particularly in cases where the HLW may escape containment. Efforts like vitrification are under way to stabilize the wastes and reduce the risks associated with HLW at facilities with the largest quantities.
The nation urgently needs a valid storage solution for HLW from federal facilities, including those supporting the nuclear weapons program, and from commercial facilities, including nuclear power reactors. Geologic storage has been the recommended option for permanent management of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and HLW for over half a century. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reported that deep geologic storage (in salt formations) was the most promising method to explore for disposing of HLW in 1957. NAS reaffirmed that position in 1966 and 1970. In 2001, NAS concluded that, after 40 years of study, “geologic storage remains the only scientifically and technically credible long-term solution available to meet safety needs without reliance on active management”. Despite these studies, concerns have been expressed regarding radioactive pollution of groundwater sources, as well as potential release of radioactive products caused by earthquakes and terrorist activities. The Yucca Mountain site is effectively at a standstill with no alternative put forth. Viable alternatives — such as recycling of spent nuclear fuel — may exist and should be studied.
ASCE Policy Statement 491
First Approved in 2001