What Is the Nuclear Waste Policy Act?

Nuclear Power Plant
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The Nuclear Waste Policy Act, or NWPA, is the U.S. legislation regulating the locations and means by which nuclear waste may be permanently stored. The Act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 and amended in 1987. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) oversees the implementation of the Act while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the environmental effects of storing nuclear waste. The DOE may only operate a nuclear waste storage facility if the operation meets the EPA's environmental standards and if the facility is licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent agency. As of the publishing date of this article, there is no permanent nuclear waste disposal site in the United States.

Background

The United States began generating radioactive nuclear waste in the 1940s to develop nuclear weapons and conduct research on the medical uses of radiation. The generation of electricity from nuclear energy began in 1951 after scientists generated a usable amount of electricity through nuclear fission for the first time.

The building of nuclear reactors by private corporations to generate electricity took off after the passing of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which increased federal support for the "development and application of civilian uses of atomic energy." The first nuclear reactor connected to the U.S. power grid in 1957. However, it wasn't until 1982, over 40 years after the U.S. began generating nuclear waste, that the U.S. enacted a policy to address the need for long-term nuclear waste storage.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act Timeline

1983 - 1987

In January 1983, Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPC). Under the NWPA, the U.S. Government was tasked with designating a space for permanent nuclear waste storage within the next 15 years. The NWPA also authorized the DOE "to enter into contracts with any person who generates or holds title to high-level radioactive waste, or spent nuclear fuel, of domestic origin for the acceptance of title, subsequent transportation, and disposal of such waste or spent fuel” in exchange for the payment of an initial amount and recurring fees. Nuclear power plants were mandated to enter into these contracts to renew or obtain their operating licenses. In return for fees paid by the nuclear power plants, the DOE would construct a permanent nuclear waste storage facility and begin accepting nuclear waste by January 31, 1998.

The view from the top of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada
The view from the top of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada.

David Howells / Contributor / Getty Images

In 1987, Congress amended the NWPA to designate Nevada's Yucca Mountain as the single site for storing all U.S. nuclear waste. By this time, the U.S. had over 100 nuclear power plants producing over 10% of the country's electricity.

1993-1998

By 1993, five years before the deadline established in the NWPA by which the DOE was to begin accepting nuclear waste, nuclear power plants and several states expressed concern over the DOE's ability to meet its NWPA obligations. In response, the DOE claimed it was not legally obligated under the NWPA to accept nuclear waste by the 1998 deadline "absent an operational repository or other facility." In other words, the DOE interpreted their obligations under the NWPA to begin only after the construction of a suitable storage facility.

The DOE went on to indicate the earliest they would have an operational permanent nuclear waste repository was 2010 and that they were abandoning most of the interim nuclear waste storage program. Despite backlash from the nuclear energy sector, the Department of Energy proceeded to publish this interpretation of the NWPA in the federal register in 1995.

State agencies and the Attorney General Offices from several states filed suit against the DOE to seek enforcement of the federal government's obligation under the NWPA. The court dismissed the case because the lawsuit was filed before the DOE published its final rule.

Additional lawsuits followed from state regulators, nuclear power plant operators, and State Attorneys General following the final rule's publication. In 1997, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the DOE, asserting the DOE was indeed obligated to accept nuclear waste by the original 1998 deadline set forth in the NWPA. Without an established storage site, the DOE continued to not accept nuclear waste following the 1998 deadline despite their NWPA obligations.

2002-2008

In 2002, the Bush Administration moved forward with officially recommending Yucca Mountain for the development of a nuclear waste repository, allowing the project to proceed towards construction. The State of Nevada vetoed the proposal, but the decision was overturned by votes in the House and the Senate.

A "no trespassing" with a mountain in the background.
A "no trespassing" sign warns people to stay away from the proposed nuclear waste dump site of Yucca Mountain.

David McNew / Staff / Getty Images

In order to begin construction, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository would need to comply with the NRC's rules governing the disposal of radioactive waste. Controversy over the differences in the NRC and EPA's requirements led to delays for the remainder of Bush's presidency. The EPA ultimately updated their environmental standards for the Yucca Mountain repository to require limits on radiation from the mountain for up to one million years after the repository closes instead of 10,000 years as originally proposed.

Meanwhile, in June 2004, a federal judge ruled the federal government breached its contractual obligations to the Tennessee Valley Authority under the NWPC through the DOE's failure to dispose of the company's nuclear waste beginning January 31, 1998. The court ordered the federal government to pay for damages incurred by the company from the government's failure to dispose of nuclear waste since the NWPC's 1998 deadline. The Tennessee Valley Authority became one of many companies to which the DOE paid damages for not meeting the 1998 NWPA deadline.

2009-2016

The Obama Administration rejected the use of the Yucca Mountain site in 2010 by cutting the project's federal funding. At the time of Obama's decision, the Energy Department's license for the Yucca Mountain facility had not been approved by the NRC, and work related to the project had already cost $12 billion.

Following his 2010 decision, Obama created the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future to evaluate alternative options for nuclear waste disposal. In their final report, the commission recommended the development of multiple nuclear disposal and storage facilities instead of the single-site approach established in the 1980s. Despite Obama's actions to halt the development of Yucca Mountain, in 2012 the NRC issued licenses for four nuclear reactors, the first new reactor licenses issued in over 30 years.

In 2014, the DOE stopped collecting fees from nuclear power plants for the funding of a permanent nuclear waste disposal site as mandated by a 2013 court ruling. The court concluded the DOE failed to provide a legal basis for the continued collection of the fees established by the NWPA's mandatory contract system. Before the collection program came to a halt, the fees generated about $750 million for the DOE every year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. nuclear industry contended with the aftermath of Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown triggered by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami. While the Fukushima reactors successfully shut down their nuclear reaction after the initial earthquake, as designed, the power plant needed electricity to continue cooling the residual radioactivity in each reactor's core. When the tsunami cut off power to the reactors, the buildup of heat and pressure led to three nuclear reactor meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and a massive release of radiation. In response to the disaster, the NRC established new safety requirements for U.S. power plants to address the potential effects of earthquakes, floods, and breaks in coolant pipes.

2017-2020

The Trump Administration re-incorporated funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage project into the federal budget in 2018, 2019, and 2020, but the action was consistently blocked by Congress. President Trump reversed his support of the project in February 2020 in what many saw as a strategy to win over voters in Nevada voters, a state he narrowly won in 2016 and ultimately lost in 2020.

In 2019, an amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was introduced to the House floor in an attempt to re-start the development of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. The amendment would place the Yucca Mountain site solely under the DOE's control, addressing one of the major issues the project encountered during past licensing efforts with the NRC. The House ordered the bill be amended, but an amended bill has yet to be introduced. A similar bill passed the House in 2018, but it was never brought to the Senate floor.

Why Is the Nuclear Waste Policy Act Important Today?

While the U.S. still lacks a permanent resting place for its nuclear waste, as intended under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, about 20% of U.S. electricity still comes from nuclear power plants. All nuclear waste in the U.S. remains in temporary storage, typically at the same site the waste was generated. U.S. nuclear waste today is in excess of 80,000 tons.

The U.S. Department of Energy continues to pay fees relating to the DOE's failure to accept nuclear waste as required by the NWPA. As of September 2020, the DOE has already paid $8 billion in damages and is expected to pay another $28 billion before a permanent nuclear repository is established. Meanwhile, the Yucca Mountain repository project has not received funding since 2010 and no new sites have been officially selected.

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