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Policy Statement 491 - High-Level Nuclear Waste Management

 

Approved by the Energy, Environment, and Water Policy Committee on February 13, 2017
Approved by the Public Policy Committee on June 5, 2017
Adopted by the Board of Direction on July 29, 2017

Policy

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) supports:

  • Permanent geologic storage as an effective means of safely isolating high-level nuclear wastes and spent nuclear fuel (collectively "HLW") for the protection of human health and the environment.  
  • 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.
  • Closure of the fuel cycle and reduction in spent nuclear fuel waste, such as through reprocessing, for the long-term good of the nation and the preservation of uranium resources.

Issue

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" and there is overwhelming international consensus on geologic disposal as the preferred option. 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.

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.
HLW is now stored in underground tanks or stainless steel silos on federal reservations in South Carolina, Idaho, and Washington state and at the Nuclear Fuel Services Plant in West Valley, NY. These facilities have begun programs to solidify and structurally stabilize the waste in preparation for storage at a national repository.  In 2010, however, the federal government suspended development of the first HLW repository planned for Yucca Mountain, Nevada, leaving the nation with growing amounts of HLW and without any long-term disposal options.

Rationale

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 (MTHM). Since 2010, when development of the first HLW repository at Yucca Mountain was stopped, no new plans for a HLW have been developed. Meanwhile, 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 latest attempt to strengthen the national strategy for high-level nuclear waste management was presented in a January 2012 report to the Energy Department by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. The commission did not issue recommendations for a specific storage site but proposed six legislative changes to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The commission recommended: (1) authorizing a new consent-based process for selecting and evaluating storage and disposal facilities; (2) authorizing the construction of interim consolidated storage facilities; (3) broadening federal support to jurisdictions affected by transportation of spent fuel; (4) establishing a new government-chartered organization to carry out the nation's program for managing spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes; (5) ensuring access to dedicated funding, in particular the Nuclear Waste Fund and fees; and (6) promoting international engagement to support safe and secure waste management.

Also see ASCE Policy Statement 262, Low and Intermediate Level Radioactive Waste Management.

ASCE Policy Statement 491
First Approved in 2001

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