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james m. hylko
our resident editorial advisor
James M. Hylko is a Nuclear Contributing Editor for POWER Magazine

The U.S. Nuclear Waste Disposal Policy - The Long Road Traveled from Lyons to Yucca Mountain, and Points in Between

James M. Hylko

By-line:  Changes in Presidential administrations over the past 50 years have resulted in abrupt transformations in U.S. nuclear waste disposal policy.  The passing of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and Amendments in 1982 and 1987, respectively, established a national policy and schedule in order to commit resources and institutional controls to develop mined geologic repositories for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level radioactive wastes.  However, lessons learned from Project Salt Vault in the 1960s to the political opposition of Yucca Mountain in 2010 reflects how the siting of a geologic repository is still a convoluted and uncompromising process.  The 1987 amendment does not provide alternatives to Yucca Mountain, and does not authorize temporary facilities without a permanent repository in operation.  The default alternative is for nuclear plants to continue using dry-cask storage to store their SNF at their points of origin, essentially making nuclear plants de facto disposal sites, which was never the intent of the Act or the Amendments.


With the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) in 1982, Congress established a national policy for the disposition of commercial spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level radioactive wastes (HLW).  The intent of the NWPA was for the Department of Energy (DOE) to identify and evaluate two different sites for the permanent geologic disposal for SNF and HLW.  Initially, nine different sites were identified, and eventually short listed to three.  Then in 1987 with the passage of Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendment (NWPAA), Congress officially designated Yucca Mountain, located about 85 miles by air northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, as the nation’s sole candidate site for a permanent nuclear waste repository.  (See Side Box – Yucca Mountain).  Before 1987 and enactment of the NWPAA, the DOE had expected to begin accepting waste in an operating geologic repository by 1998.

Fast Forward to 2008

Over the objections of the State of Nevada, the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted a license application for the repository in June 2008 to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  However, during the 2008 Presidential election campaign, promises were being made to support Nevada’s fight against the repository, contending that nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain was no longer an option – period!  Justification for this decision was that Yucca Mountain was a poor choice; relevant science had improved since the site was first selected in the 1980s; and that the nation can find a better alternative.  Even if Yucca Mountain did move forward, transporting SNF to Yucca Mountain is still not projected to begin until 2020, already 22 years beyond the 1998 deadline.  

The nuclear industry is unique among energy producers in its contractual commitment to cover the full costs for managing its waste.  The NWPA directed utilities to levy fees on electricity generated by nuclear power and to pay those fees into a federal Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF) to develop and operate a national repository.  In return for the payment of fees, the NWPA directed the federal government to accept ownership and begin disposing of the SNF and HLW no later than January 31, 1998.  Since 1983, consumers of electricity from nuclear power plants have paid almost $30 billion into the NWF.  Consumers in Alabama and Georgia, for example, have committed more than $1.0 billion, and still contribute over $44 million a year into the NWF.   The current balance in the NWF exceeds approximately $20 billion, and consumers are still contributing about $750 million a year to the NWF.

Although U.S. nuclear power plants will continue to generate SNF after the repository was scheduled to open, the DOE had estimated that all the waste could not be removed from the existing plants until 2066, even under the current Yucca Mountain schedule.  Furthermore, not all the projected waste could be disposed at Yucca Mountain unless the NWPA’s current limit on the repository’s maximum capacity of 70,000 metric tons of SNF assemblies and HLW was increased.  The Electric Power Research Institute reported that the repository could be redesigned to hold from 260,000 metric tons up to 570,000 metric tons of waste with additional site characterization.

A Eulogy for Yucca Mountain

In addition to the political controversy and opposition surrounding Yucca Mountain, it had become clear that DOE was not going to have a permanent repository ready to accept nuclear waste by the 1998 deadline, let alone maintain adequate funding to continue the program.  In connection with reducing the budget over the years, the stark reality of terminating the Yucca Mountain program finally hit home during the DOE FY2010 budget justification clearly reflecting commitments to move beyond Yucca Mountain and develop other alternatives. For example, a request of $198.6 million for DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) provided only enough funding to continue the licensing process and to evaluate alternative policies.  The request was about $90 million below the FY2009 funding level, which was nearly $100 million below the FY2008 level.  These reductions have essentially stopped all work related to the repository’s construction, operation, infrastructure and transportation programs.

The pending demise was further validated by a wave of key upper-level managerial departures and retirements, also dropping the overall workforce from over 2,500 to less than 600.  A draft of the FY2011 budget request indicated that all funding for Yucca Mountain licensing, OCRWM project offices, and Sandia National Laboratories-New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, who has been the lead laboratory supporting the Yucca Mountain Project were to be eliminated by the end of 2010 altogether.  Only $46.2 million has been earmarked for worker transition, site remediation and archiving data produced during more than two decades of research.

Still, the Administration has asserted to fulfilling its obligations under the NWPA.  Ongoing responsibilities under the Act, such as the administration of the NWF, will continue under the Office of Nuclear Energy, which will lead future waste management activities.  However, the redirection of Yucca Mountain could still take a variety of forms.  Stopping the license application process will likely trigger lawsuits, and make it increasingly difficult to justify collecting fees for the NWF, which is legally intended for developing a national spent fuel repository.  Furthermore, even if the license application was withdrawn, the project would not necessarily be discontinued since the Act requiring the federal government to pursue Yucca Mountain remains in place.  The decision to redirect the existing nuclear waste policy could be implemented though amending or repealing the NWPAs of 1982 and 1987. 

Blue Ribbon Commission

In light of the decision to close Yucca Mountain, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu convened a “Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future” in January 2010 to conduct a comprehensive review and make recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the Nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.  The Commission is comprised of scientists, industry representatives, and former elected officials.  The Commission is being co-chaired by former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who represented Indiana's 9th congressional district from 1965 to 1999, and served on the 9/11 Commission; and Brent Scowcroft, who served as the National Security Advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.  The members of the commission follow:

  • Mark Ayers, President, Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO
  • Vicky Bailey, Former Commissioner, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; Former IN PUC Commissioner; Former Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs
  • Albert Carnesale, Chancellor Emeritus and Professor, UCLA
  • Pete V. Domenici, Senior Fellow, Bipartisan Policy Center; former U.S. Senator (R-NM)
  • Susan Eisenhower, President, Eisenhower Group, Inc.
  • Chuck Hagel, Former U.S. Senator (R-NE)
  • Jonathan Lash, President, World Resources Institute
  • Allison Macfarlane, Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University
  • Richard A. Meserve, President, Carnegie Institution for Science, and former Chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Ernie Moniz, Professor of Physics and Cecil & Ida Green Distinguished Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Per Peterson, Professor and Chair, Department of Nuclear Engineering, University of California - Berkeley
  • John Rowe, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation
  • Phil Sharp, President, Resources for the Future

The Commission is expected to produce an interim report within 18 months and a final report within 24 months.

Origins of the U.S. Waste Management Policy

Closing Yucca Mountain will strand more than $6 billion of public investment; abandon over two decades of scientific and engineering work; ensure that SNF will remain indefinitely at their current locations; and likely impact the renaissance of nuclear power in the U.S.  However, based on the past track record of U.S. waste management policy, the Yucca Mountain is not the first project where the U.S. taxpayers and nuclear industry would lose their return on investment to establish a geologic repository.

It is important to recognize that during the U.S. reactor development programs of the 1950's and 1960's, there was every expectation that that SNF would be reprocessed and its valuable components, uranium and plutonium, would be recycled as new fuel.  At the same time, nearly 2.4 billion gallons of HLW, the aqueous waste resulting from the solvent extraction cycles after reprocessing, were projected to accumulate by the year 2000.  These projections convinced the AEC, a predecessor agency to the NRC, to address this unprecedented issue of how to safely isolate radionuclides from the environment for long periods of time that neither catastrophic acts of nature nor inadvertent or malicious actions of this or future generations could cause the material to enter the environment.

In 1955, the NAS would begin formulating the scientific basis for establishing a U.S. waste management program.  An eight-man committee was appointed by the National Academy of Science-National Research Council (NAS), Earth Sciences Committee on Waste Disposal, at the request of the AEC.  The committee consisted of prominent geologists and geophysicists whose mission was to consider the possibilities for disposal of HLW wastes in geologic formations within the United States.  The state of the technology at the time was that the waste materials would be dissolved in liquid at relatively low concentrations.  This constraint strongly affected the way the committee proceeded through the problem while discarding several alternatives.  The use of granite and other crystalline rock quarries, including permeable non-crystalline rocks, such as sandstone and limestone, were discounted because of the near impossibility of sealing the facility against leaks.  The uncertainties of sealing non-permeable materials such as clay and shales seemed too formidable.  Other options, such as injecting the waste into deep-lying porous media, inter-stratified with impermeable beds, were deemed to be feasible in principle, but deemed impractical to put into operation as a result of clogging, and uncertainties associated with direction and flow rates, once in the media.

The most promising repository medium involved stable salt formations.  It was viewed that abandoned salt mines or cavities especially mined to hold waste are, in essence, long-enduring tanks.  Two primary factors made salt the appropriate answer.  First, a relatively stable salt formation is essentially impermeable to the passage of water and other fluids, and will not carry away the waste.  Second, fractures in the salt would be self-sealing because of the plastic flow properties of the material at typical repository depths.  Additional supporting evidence for using salt formations consisted of:  wide distribution and large reserves; structural properties - salt has the strength of concrete; relatively low cost of developing space in salt; thermal conductivity - salt has a high thermal conductivity compared with most geologic materials; and salt deposits are located in areas of low seismicity.  The NAS committee believed it had found an autonomous mechanism, based on immutable physical principles to ensure that the radioactive waste would be isolated for thousands of years.  Furthermore, the committee’s position was founded on the assumptions that neither the chemical and physical properties of the waste, nor the salt would be altered when exposed to the heat and radiation generated by the waste.  If these assumptions were validated, then all that was necessary was to find a suitable salt formation to dispose of the waste.  The committee would eventually publish its findings in the September 1957 report, The Disposal of Radioactive Waste on Land, influencing waste management policy over the next two decades.

Over the next 4 years (ca. 1957-1962), small-scale research projects were initiated to test the validity of the committee’s assumption.  Also in 1962, the U.S. Geological Survey evaluated the suitability of over 200 salt domes throughout Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi - beginning the process for conducting siting studies - for disposal of the wastes.  Concurrently, substantial improvements in fuel reprocessing technology were being made, the most important involving a twentyfold reduction in liquid waste volumes.  This facilitated transforming the remaining aqueous waste into a solid form, but substantially increased the heat and radiation levels of the final waste form. This breakthrough redirected the AEC to examine the effects of packaged radioactive wastes on salt by performing the first major in-situ experiments - called Project Salt Vault - to obtain the data needed to design a waste repository.

Project Salt Vault

Project Salt Vault was to demonstrate the safety and feasibility of handling and storing HLW solids from power reactors in salt formations.  The engineering and scientific objectives consisted of:

  • Demonstrating waste handling equipment and techniques required to handle packages containing HLW solids from the point of production to the disposal location;
  • Determining the stability and effects of salt formations under the combined effects of heat and radiation (approximately 4,000,000 curies of radioactive material, yielding up to 109 rads);
  • Collecting information on creep and plastic flow of salt that was needed for the design of an actual disposal facility; and
  • Monitoring the site for radiolytic chemical reactions, if such should occur.

The demonstration site was the inactive Lyons, Kansas mine of the Carey Salt Company.  The mine had operated from 1890 to 1948 at a depth of 1,020 feet, and had been kept open for possible future use.  Preparations for the demonstration began in 1963, and the first radioactive material was placed in the mine in November 1965.  The tests involved the emplacement of actual irradiated fuel assemblies from the Engineering Test Reactor (ETR) in Idaho.  The ETR assemblies were chosen because of their availability on a dependable schedule and their relatively high radioactivity levels.

Seven sealed canisters containing 14 SNF assemblies were transported by truck in a lead-shielded carrier to the site.  The canisters were lowered 1,000 feet below the surface, one at a time, into the mine through a 19-inch diameter charging shaft.  In the mine, they would enter a lead-shielded vessel on a trailer drawn by a diesel-powered tractor that delivered the canisters, one at a time, to an array of lined holes drilled in the floor.  The same machine, designated the Waste Transporter, was used to recover and transfer the canisters at the end of their use.

The canisters were placed in a ring-like arrangement in the floor of the mine (Photo 1). Furthermore, electrical heaters were attached to the lower liners to raise temperatures in the central pillar in order to obtain information on its in-situ structural response to heat. The heaters were used to compensate for lower heat release rates of the fuel elements compared with actual waste. 

instrumentation embedded in floor of salt mine, wired to instrument panel on far wall

Photo 1.  In-situ testing in the Carey salt mine.  (Source:  Kansas Geological Survey).

The program plan called for replacing the waste every 6 months to maximize the radiation dose to the surrounding salt formations.  At the end of each phase, the spent fuel was retrieved and returned to Idaho.

The results showed that the structural properties of salt were not significantly altered by the high radiation levels.  However, the extensive heating of the salt around the arrays and the heated pillar did produce effects not completely anticipated.  Therefore, useful information was gathered with respect to thermal stresses, migration of brine-filled cavities, and salt-flow characteristics as a function of temperature.  For example, this demonstration revealed that inclusions of moisture, or brine, in the salt beds had a tendency to migrate up a thermal gradient towards a heat source placed in the salt.  Quantities of brine were measured as migrating and interacting with the deposited waste canisters.

All the predictions of thermal and radiation effects based upon theoretical modeling and laboratory experiments were confirmed by the in-situ demonstration.  Despite the rather high radiation levels and high thermal loading, no measurable radiolytic or excessive structural effects in the salt were observed. In addition, operations at Lyons, both at the surface and in the mine, were carried out without the use of hot cells.  Maximum personnel recorded dose during any quarter was 200 mrem, principally to the hands of a worker.  The results of Project Salt Vault at the time did lead many in the AEC to believe that the use of bedded salt was satisfactory for the disposal of radioactive wastes.  The experimental phase of Project Salt Vault was terminated in June 1967 when the last canister was removed from the mine.  The Lyons Mine was then placed on standby on February 1, 1968.

The Beginning of the End

Those involved in Project Salt Vault recall that their efforts enjoyed the support of the local community.  Four factors contributed to this climate of acceptance: 1) the experiment was designed from the beginning to be reversible, i.e., once it was completed, all the waste would be completely removed; 2) consultations were held with local groups before the project began; 3) efforts were made by Oak Ridge staff personnel to conduct the studies in full view of the Kansas population; and 4) once the research started, regular tours were conducted in which the general public could visit the mine.

However, two intervening events would result in the AEC withdrawing from the Lyons site in the future.  The first event was a fire that occurred in 1969 at the Rocky Flats, Colorado facility. The accident generated a large volume of low-level, plutonium contaminated debris.  Following its standard operating procedures, the managers of Rocky Flats sent the waste to the National Reactor Test Station in Idaho for storage.  That action outraged Idaho’s political leadership who saw no reason why their State should become the “dumping ground” for waste created in Colorado.  They acted and ultimately extracted a commitment from the AEC Chairman, Glenn Seaborg (1961-1971) that all of the waste would be removed from Idaho by 1980.  That pledge necessitated the construction of a disposal facility.  The second event, that essentially dominated the entire decade, was the growing opposition to nuclear power.  Because of the growing controversy over nuclear power, waste management policy was coming under increased scrutiny.

Confronted with the need for a repository and the available information at the time, AEC’s siting strategy was relatively straightforward.  A number of characteristics made salt particularly attractive for storage of radioactive wastes:  widespread and abundant, underlying about 500,000 square miles in portions of 24 states; good structural properties, with a compressive strength and radiation-shielding properties similar to concrete; relatively inexpensive to mine; thermal properties were better than most other rock types; and found generally in areas of low seismicity.  Most importantly, bedded salt deposits were completely free of circulating groundwater and isolated from underground aquifers by impermeable shale.  Any fractures that were to develop would be sealed by plastic deformation and recrystallization of the salt.  The areas under consideration were reduced because only salt deposits 200 feet thick and lying within 2,000 feet of the surface were deemed suitable for the first waste repository.  The largest areas meeting these criteria lay in central Kansas; although there were two smaller areas in Michigan and one in west central New York. 

In 1970, the AEC announced that, pending confirmatory tests, the Lyons site was being selected as the first full-scale national repository.  The factors contributing to this selection consisted of: having available information gathered as part of Project Salt Vault; a sense of confidence in receiving a favorable reception from local and state officials and private citizens; and that it would take another two years to conduct the necessary investigations to identify another acceptable site.

Although the degree to which AEC had consulted with State and local officials before this announcement is in dispute, the AEC’s decision did not receive full endorsement.  Moreover, State and local political opposition to the Lyons site was intense, particularly when technical problems with the site became apparent.  In-depth site studies raised several questions concerning the safe plugging of old exploratory wells and proposed expanded salt mining activities.

Political Opposition Begins

Among the leaders of the Kansas Geological Survey, a view was widely held that insufficient knowledge about repository design had been gathered, referring to primitive heat-flow models, and gaps in understanding waste-rock interactions and rock mechanics. These concerns about the technical viability of the effort provided a basis for opposition on the part of U.S. Representative Joe Skubitz, who represented a Kansas district which did not include Lyons, and Governor Robert Docking.  They unleashed a barrage of criticisms on AEC, and despite the agency’s best efforts, those protests asserting that State interests were being ignored never diminished.  Skubitz had inquired as to why the Kansas salt fields were selected instead of a site in the Salina basin that would have been closer to the operating and planned reprocessing plants in New York, Illinois, and South Carolina.  The agency responded by saying the Kansas site possessed geologic characteristics more favorable than those of the salt in the Salina basin.  AEC furthermore justified the long transport routes to Kansas by suggesting a reprocessing plant would be built in California, thus making the Lyons site centrally located.

The AEC’s answer to Skubitz for the selection was interpreted to emphasize meeting the technical requirements and virtually ignoring the nontechnical factors.  Furthermore, it is believed that the Kansas salt mine was chosen because of prior local acceptance to Project Salt Vault and because AEC did not have the resources to investigate other locations.

Eventually, in August 1971, the controversy escalated involving both of Kansas’ Senators, Robert Dole and James Pearson, to sponsor an amendment to AEC’s authorizing legislation prohibiting buying of land or burying waste materials at Lyons until such time as an independent advisory council, appointed by the President, reported to Congress that the establishment of a repository and burial of waste could be carried out safely.  Thus, AEC’s inability to satisfy concerns of State officials resulted in their losing considerable autonomy in implementing a major policy decision in waste management.  

In September 1971, newly discovered technical difficulties would severely threaten the project’s future.  The difficulties involved the discovery of roughly 20 oil and gas boreholes that were likely incapable of being plugged successfully, and the disappearance of water from a nearby solution mining operation.  These events suggested that the geological integrity of the proposed site might be inadequate.  In February 1972, the AEC withdrew from further operations at the Lyons site citing technical uncertainties and problems in political and public acceptance.


As a result of withdrawing from the Lyons site, the AEC announced plans (ca. May/June 1972) to construct an engineered, at-grade Retrievable Surface Storage Facility (RSSF) until the time when a geological repository would be available.  The proposed plan was to locate the RSSF at an AEC or Federal site in the western U.S.  However, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) issued by AEC in support of the RSSF concept drew intense criticism from the public and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because of the possibility that economic factors could later dictate utilization of the facility as a permanent repository, contrary to the planned interim use of the RSSF.  In this instance, it was unacceptable to proceed with an interim storage system unless there were unambiguous assurances to develop a permanent repository.

Dr. Robert Seamans, in one of his first acts as the new administrator of the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) formed from the separation of the AEC into the NRC and ERDA, decided to withdraw the EIS associated with the RSSF in 1975 and that a permanent waste repository should be given budget priority.  In 1976, a multiple-site strategy was initiated that would have lead to the development of several repositories by 2000.  Letters were sent to 36 State Governors informing them of these plans and asking for their cooperation in site exploration activities.  A number of generic studies were undertaken at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), the Permian basin and Palo Duro sub-basin in Texas, and Salina salt basin in Michigan, Ohio, and New York.  Exploration of specific sites would commence in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Washington, and Nevada in search of a location to host the first commercial waste repository.  This expansion of the site selection strategy yielded some important dividends, such as introducing redundancy and backup. 

Nevertheless, it was clearly recognized that the States had to become more intimately involved in the waste management decision-making process.  ERDA offered to work closely with the States and to keep the Governors informed of how its programs were progressing, and that would terminate a project within a State if technical issues were not resolved through mutually accepted procedures.  The States, in effect, were being offered at least the potential of a veto over the construction of a waste facility within their jurisdiction.  Thus, what began as a new initiative in the area of waste management was soon halted by the reluctance of State officials to consider a facility within their boundaries.

The AFR Storage Concept

Because of the geologic disposal program’s relatively late start, and ultimate deferral of commercial reprocessing (See Hylko, How to solve the used nuclear fuel storage problem, Power, August 15, 2008), concerns were raised that a number of operating reactors would run out of room to store their discharged SNF onsite.  Should that occur and if there were no alternative locations to store the SNF, the reactor would be forced to shut down.  To address this particular concern, and while ERDA was reorganized into the current DOE, it pursued an “away-from-reactor (AFR) storage” concept in 1977 to store any spent fuel that utilities wished to transfer to the Government.  The Government would then take title to the fuel through permanent disposal.  At the time of transfer, the utilities would pay a one-time charge that would fully pay for storage and disposal costs.

The AFR concept was initially designed to serve four different functions:  preventing the shutdown of reactors pending repository development; providing time for the geologic disposal program to mature; allowing the U.S. to accept limited amounts of foreign spent fuel to achieve nonproliferation objectives; and maintaining access to plutonium and uranium in the SNF should reprocessing become viable again in the future.  However, the AFR concept was viewed very much like the RSSF concept attempted several years earlier, with similar results, and was eventually terminated in 1981.

Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA)

In 1982, the Congress enacted the NWPA and was signed by President Reagan on January 7, 1983.  The NWPA represented the largest civil works project in history establishing a schedule for the DOE to site and for the NRC to license geological repositories for permanent disposal of SNF and HLW.  The DOE was directed to assess numerous locations around the country for possible sites and present a minimum of three finalist sites.  Although this legislation was a decisive step forward, the implementation of the Act raised a public outcry primarily based on accusations of acting in secret to identify the sites.

To finance the project, the NWPA established the NWF where electricity consumers would pay a fee of one-tenth of a cent for every nuclear-generated kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed.  The DOE would draw upon the NWF to finance the siting, construction, and operation of the repositories.  In exchange for payment into the NWF, DOE was required to take title to the SNF and HLW following the opening of the first repository scheduled for January 31, 1998.

In February 1983, the DOE carried out the first requirement of the NWPA by formally identifying potentially acceptable locations and the host rock, for the first repository:  1. Vacherie dome, Louisiana (domal salt); 2. Cypress Creek dome, Mississippi (domal salt); 3. Richton dome, Mississippi (domal salt); 4. Yucca Mountain, Nevada (welded tuff); 5. Deaf Smith County, Texas (bedded salt); 6. Swisher County, Texas (bedded salt); 7. Davis Canyon, Utah (bedded salt); 8. Lavender Canyon, Utah (bedded salt); and 9. Hanford Site, Washington (basalt flows).

By 1984, it was perceived that one or more repositories would be available by 2007-2009, and that sufficient repository capacity would be available within 30 years beyond expiration of any reactor operating license to dispose of SNF and HLW generated up to that time.  In addition, the DOE reaffirmed its obligation to accept SNF assemblies beginning in January 1998, whether or not a permanent disposal facility was ready.  This announcement was to enable utilities to plan for their projected waste disposal needs with confidence and certainty.

After evaluating the nine candidate sites, the DOE selected three finalists for the first geological repository:  1) Yucca Mountain, 2) Deaf Smith County, and 3) Hanford.  These sites advanced into the next round of intensive scientific study referred to as the site characterization process.  Critics had claimed the sites were recycled from surveys performed in the 1970s and that the NWPA required DOE to conduct a new screening process rather than proceed with sites considered prior to the passage of the NWPA.  On May 28, 1986, President Reagan approved Yucca Mountain for site characterization activities under the NWPA.  Nearly $1.5 billion had been spent surveying, drilling, recording seismic information, monitoring, and analyzing the Yucca Mountain site. 

The site characterization process on a second repository would be postponed indefinitely due to declining projections of SNF inventories, continued progress in siting the first geological repository, high cost estimates for evaluating a second repository site, and the expected benefits of a Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) facility to the overall nuclear waste management program.

Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act (NWPAA)

President Bush signed the NWPAA on December 22, 1987.  By this Act, the waste issue was “settled” by focusing on the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada as “the” finalist site to be characterized as the nation’s first geological repository, and to phase-out all other candidate sites.  Characterization of each site had been estimated to take five to seven years, costing somewhere between $1 - $2 billion.

The NWPAA outlined a detailed approach for disposal involving review by the President, Congress, State and Tribal governments, NRC, and other federal agencies, also retaining the 70,000 metric ton limit on the amount of SNF and HLW that the DOE can place in the first repository.  According to legislative history, the intent of this limitation was to ensure that no state would have to bear the entire nuclear waste disposal burden.  Also, DOE revised its goal for opening the first repository from 1998 to 2003.  However, if Yucca Mountain was found to be unsuitable, Congress was to be notified and provided alternatives.

Regional Equity

Regional equity concerns were being raised over a majority of the SNF being generated in the eastern U.S., yet having the final candidate sites for a repository located in the western U.S.  At one time, however, there were 12 potential sites in 7 eastern states for a second repository.  To counter the regional equity issue, an MRS facility would be integrated into the ultimate disposal system and preferably located in the eastern U.S.  Also, the licensing process would be straightforward since it did not have to isolate wastes for thousands of years, but simply serve as a temporary, multi-decade storage facility, and then consolidate shipments in dedicated trains and trucks to the repository.  Three sites had been identified in the State of Tennessee, with a preferred site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, originally identified for the postponed Clinch River breeder reactor.  The State of Tennessee was against designating Tennessee alone as a contender and sued.  The proposal was held up, and ultimately went to the Supreme Court.  The DOE won the case and submitted its proposal to Congress. 

Still, in order to prevent the MRS from becoming a de facto repository - similar to the RSSF and AFR facility - the DOE did recommend certain conditions linking MRS development to repository development.  The license for MRS would contain conditions allowing construction and operation of the MRS only when repository construction and operation was proceeding, and to limit the total capacity of the MRS to 15,000 metric tons of waste.

The NWPAA had also established the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator to negotiate agreements with states or Indian tribes willing to host a repository or an MRS.  Such an agreement could contain different conditions than those imposed on a DOE-sited facility.  However, the Office was not reauthorized by Congress and eliminated in 1995.

Yucca Mountain – Can You Dig It?

Between 1987 and 2001, DOE would spend another $3.8 billion on scientific and technical studies of Yucca Mountain.  For instance, in 1997, a 5-mile tunnel through Yucca Mountain was completed to function as an Exploratory Study Facility.  In 1998, a second 2-mile cross drift tunnel would facilitate additional experiments in the potential repository host rock.  These tunnels, and the numerous niches and alcoves created the world’s largest underground laboratory (Photos 2, 3 and 4).


Photo 2:  View of the above-ground support structures and North and South portals at Yucca Mountain.  (Courtesy of the Department of Energy/OCRWM).

Photo 3:  View of the South portal of the Exploratory Studies Facility showing the 25-foot-diameter tunnel boring machine.  (Courtesy of the Department of Energy/OCRWM).

Photo 4:  Tunnel boring machine cutter head at the South Portal in April 1997.  (Courtesy of the Department of Energy/OCRWM).

From the surface, more than 180 boreholes were drilled deep into the geology and its surrounding features.  Independent scientists working for Nye County, Nevada drilled additional exploratory holes and collaborated with DOE scientists on their findings.  These efforts were further supplemented by numerous laboratory experiments and excavation of similar geologic features both nearby and at sites around the world.  The results ultimately provided an understanding of the Yucca Mountain geology and its ability to safely contain radioactive wastes.

In 2001, DOE issued reports containing thousands of pages of information, summarizing the extensive site characterization effort.  During this period, DOE would hold over 65 public hearings, sending 6,000 letters to individuals, corporations, and groups, eventually responding to over 17,000 comments.  In 2002, the President would approve the Secretary of Energy's recommendation of Yucca Mountain as the site for a nuclear fuel repository. 

In April of 2002, the Governor of the State of Nevada, as provided for by the NWPA, vetoed this decision.  In the NWPA’s unprecedented procedure for assuring that any site decision received thorough and fair consideration, the Governor’s veto could only be overridden by a majority vote in both houses of Congress.  For three months, Yucca Mountain was debated in Congress, in committee hearings and on the floor of the House and Senate.  Eventually, Congress would vote to override the objection by approving the Yucca Mountain site 306-117.  Later, the Senate would approve the Yucca Mountain site by voice vote following a procedural "motion to proceed" vote, 60-39.  Later, this approval, known as the Yucca Mountain Development Act, was signed into law by the President on July 23, 2002, allowing the DOE to prepare and submit a license application to the NRC.

By the time the YMDA was enacted, DOE had spent $7.1 billion on the evaluation of multiple sites, detailed study of Yucca Mountain, the preparation and defense of the site recommendation, and related waste acceptance and transportation planning activities.  DOE would spend another $1.5 billion preparing the Yucca Mountain license application, including transportation and waste acceptance plans.  After years of delay, DOE submitted the 8,600-page license application to the NRC in June 2008 (Photo 5).


Photo 5:  The Yucca Mountain License Application.  (Courtesy of the Department of Energy/OCRWM).

After a preliminary 90-day screening period, the NRC determined that the application contained sufficient information to formally docket the application and move on to the next stage of technical and scientific review.  Approximately 40 NRC staff members and consultants reviewed the license application prior to the docketing decision.  The license application was not reviewed for merit during this screening period, but rather to determine whether it was complete enough for the NRC to proceed.

According to federal legislation, the NRC must complete the Yucca Mountain license application review within four years.  However, there is no penalty if the NRC fails to finish the review within the required time period.  According to DOE, the earliest the repository could start accepting waste, given a smooth licensing process and consistent funding, is 2020.  The total system life-cycle cost that includes the cost to research, construct and operate Yucca Mountain during a period of 150 years, from the beginning of the program in 1983 through closure and decommissioning in 2133 is estimated to exceed $96 billion.

Here, There and Back Again

Coming full circle, the current administration announced plans to terminate the Yucca Mountain program in 2009 and establish a blue-ribbon commission to develop a new strategy for nuclear waste management and disposal.

Spent Fuel Storage Options

The water-pool storage option involves storing SNF assemblies under at least 20 feet of water to provide shielding from the radiation and removal of decay heat (Photo 6).


Photo 6:  Storing spent fuel assemblies underwater in a storage pool.  (Courtesy of the Department of Energy).


About one-fourth to one-third of the total fuel load is removed from the reactor typically every 18 months and replaced with fresh fuel.  When nuclear plants were first built, it was anticipated that the SNF would be reprocessed.  As a result, many of the nuclear plant spent fuel pools have either reached or are nearing capacity (Figure 1).


Figure 1:  Nuclear Fuel Pool Capacity (Source: NRC)

Current regulations permit re-racking of the storage pool grid and fuel rod consolidation, subject to NRC review and approval, to increase the amount of SNF that can be stored in the pool. However, both of these methods are constrained by the size of the pool.

In the early 1980s, utilities began looking at using dry casks to increase on-site storage capacity.  The process of loading a cask, consisting of a steel cylinder designed to hold typically two dozen SNF assemblies, takes place underwater in the storage pool.  Once the assemblies have cooled for given period of time, they are transferred underwater from the storage racks to the submerged cask.  The cask is then removed from the storage pool, where excess water is removed; backfilled with an inert gas to enhance decay-heat transfer capabilities; welded or bolted closed; inserted into a concrete over structure; and stored vertically on a concrete pad.  The cask itself provides the necessary radiation shielding.  Other above-ground designs seal the SNF inside a steel cylinder, which is then inserted either vertically into a concrete silo or horizontally into a concrete vault.  The concrete provides the radiation shielding (Figure 2).

Dry Storage of Spent Fuel

Figure 2: Canisters are designed to be placed either vertically in above-ground concrete or steel structures, or stored horizontally in above-ground concrete vaults.  (Source:  NRC)

The NRC approves dry-storage systems by evaluating each design for resistance to accident conditions such as floods, earthquakes, tornado missiles, and temperature extremes.  Some cask designs can be used for both storage and transportation.


The dry-storage casks are located in an independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI).  Such storage may be either at the reactor site or elsewhere.  The licensing process and concept of operation for an ISFSI has evolved over time.  Early considerations were based upon the safe storage of spent fuel in an existing reactor's spent fuel pool.  In 1980, the regulation governing this type of activity, 10 CFR Part 72, Licensing Requirements for the Independent Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel, High-Level Radioactive Waste, and Reactor-Related Greater Than Class C Waste, was initially developed based on a pool-type storage environment for spent fuel (e.g., the GE-Morris facility, See Hylko, How to solve the used nuclear fuel storage problem, Power, August 15, 2008).  As dry-cask storage technology evolved, consideration expanded to include SNF storage in casks at a reactor site.  This flexibility ensured the storage pool could handle a full-core discharge during an outage.  The NWPA mandated that the use of dry-cask storage technologies be permitted under a license.  Therefore, 10 CFR Part 72 was modified to incorporate these provisions in 1990.

Site-Specific and General Licenses

The NRC authorizes storage of SNF at an ISFSI under two licensing options: site-specific licensing and general licensing.  Under a site-specific license, an applicant submits a license application to NRC, and a technical review is performed on the safety aspects of the proposed ISFSI.  If the application is approved, the NRC issues a license that is valid for 20 years.  The license contains technical requirements and operating conditions (e.g., fuel specifications, cask leak testing, surveillance, and other requirements) for the ISFSI and specifies what the licensee is authorized to store at the site.

A general license authorizes a nuclear plant licensee to store SNF in NRC-approved casks at a site that is licensed to operate a power reactor under 10 CFR Part 50.  Licensees are required to demonstrate that their site is adequate for storing SNF in dry casks.  The licensee must also make any necessary changes to their security program, emergency plan, quality assurance program, training program and radiation protection program to incorporate the ISFSI at its location.  In addition, these evaluations must show that the cask’s technical specifications covered in the Certificate of Compliance (CoC) can be met, including analysis of earthquake intensity and tornado missiles.  The NRC issues a Certificate of Compliance to the vendor following a technical review and approval of a dry-storage system’s design in accordance with 10 CFR 72.  The certificate expires 20 years from the date of issuance (Table 1).

Table 1.  NRC-Approved Dry-Storage Designs for General Use (Source: NRC)


Storage Design Model

Certificate of Compliance
Issue Date

General Nuclear Systems, Inc.



NAC International, Inc.



NAC International, Inc.



Transnuclear, Inc.



BNG Fuel
Solutions Corp.



Transnuclear, Inc.









Transnuclear, Inc.



NAC International, Inc.



NAC International, Inc.



BNG Fuel
Solutions Corp.



Transnuclear, Inc.



Transnuclear, Inc.

Advanced NUHOMS-24PT1


Transnuclear, Inc.



NAC International, Inc.



To renew a CoC at the end of the 20-year approval period, a certificate holder submits a request to NRC with any necessary supporting information describing: (1) the capability of the cask design to meet technical requirements; and (2) the capability of loaded casks to continue to meet technical requirements for another CoC approval period.  After reviewing this information, the NRC would determine whether to renew the certificate.

Licensee Effort to Install an ISFSI

Potential licensees should not underestimate the time required to complete the scope of the work required to license, construct, and store SNF in an NRC-approved dry-storage system.  While some tasks shown below can be completed concurrently, the level of effort has been estimated to take approximately 200 staff-months (Figure 3):

Estimated Level of Licensee Effort to Complete General License Considerations

Figure 3:  Estimated Level of Licensee Effort to Install an ISFSI (Source:  NRC)

The first U.S. commercial ISFSI was licensed by the NRC in 1986 at the Surry Nuclear Plant in Virginia.  Since then, dry-cask storage is now common among licensees needing additional SNF storage capacity.  According to the NRC, SNF is currently in dry storage at 40 general license ISFSIs and 15 site-specific license ISFSIs

Southern Nuclear’s ISFSI

Southern Nuclear’s Hatch and Farley nuclear plants safely store spent fuel in above-ground dry-storage casks (Photo 7).

Photo 7:  Southern Nuclear’s dry-cask storage system at Hatch Nuclear Plant.  (Courtesy of Southern Nuclear).

Southern Nuclear also operates the Vogtle nuclear plant (See Hylko, Plant Vogtle Leads the Next Nuclear Generation,” Power, November 1, 2009) where all of the used fuel for both units is stored safely under water in two storage pools located in the protected area of the plant.  There is still storage capacity available in the existing pools to last for years of generation. Therefore, by combing the existing capability of the storage pools and dry-storage facilities, all of Southern Nuclear’s sites have the capability to safely store spent fuel on-site for the duration of each plant’s operating license.

Southern Nuclear, the nuclear plant operating company for Southern Company ( since 1990, is the licensed operator of the Alvin W. Vogtle nuclear plant located about 25 miles south of Augusta, GA near Waynesboro, GA; the Edwin I. Hatch Nuclear Plant near Baxley, Georgia; and the Joseph M. Farley Nuclear Plant near Dothan, Alabama.  Plants Farley, Hatch and Vogtle provide more than 20% of the electricity used in Alabama and Georgia.


On January 31, 1998, the federal government defaulted on its contractual obligation to begin removing spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants for geologic disposal.  This resulted in consumers incurring additional costs for designing, licensing, and building dry-cask storage facilities on plant sites.  Owners of the existing reactors are likely to continue seeking damages from the federal government since abandoning Yucca Mountain will only further delay the federal government’s removal of SNF from reactor sites.  The DOE had already estimated that liabilities could reach $11 billion even if Yucca Mountain had opened as planned, but with its closing, future damages could reach tens of billions of dollars.  For example, Southern Nuclear Operating Company, Georgia Power Company, and Alabama Power Company filed suit seeking damages based upon the federal government’s breach of this contract.  As of March 2010, the suit was still pending.

J.M. Hylko is the Nuclear Contributing Editor for Power (



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