The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for disposing of certain low-level nuclear waste from medical equipment, metals in nuclear reactors, and cleanup sites. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 required DOE to assess the potential environmental effects of various disposal options. No legal options currently exist.
A review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that DOE’s assessments were extensive but didn’t give rationales for preferring certain disposal options. They also weren’t clear on the amount of waste that will need disposal.
DOE is responsible for disposing of greater-than-Class C (GTCC) waste, a type of commercial low-level nuclear waste from decommissioned nuclear reactors and disused medical and industrial equipment. It is also responsible for disposing of government waste with similar characteristics, which it calls GTCC-like waste. In a 2016 environmental impact statement, DOE used its most recent estimates of the volumes and radiological characteristics of these wastes to evaluate the potential environmental impacts of various disposal alternatives. Specifically, DOE estimated that 12,000 cubic meters would be generated through 2083 and require disposal. Of this amount, 1,100 cubic meters were already in storage. However, GAO found that DOE did not quantify uncertainties in its estimates, and DOE guidance does not include quality assurance steps related to quantifying uncertainty. Adding such steps would better ensure the agency provides stakeholders with needed information.
In its environmental impact statement, DOE selected three preferred options for GTCC and GTCC-like waste disposal: (1) the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, the nation’s only geologic repository; (2) commercial land disposal facilities; or (3) both. However, DOE did not explain the rationale for its selection in the statement. GAO reviewed DOE guidance for environmental analyses and found that it did not include specific steps to ensure the agency implements regulatory provisions related to transparency, such as explaining the rationale for its selections. By adding such steps to its guidance, DOE would better ensure its future environmental analyses are transparently documented. This may give stakeholders more confidence in DOE’s decisions.
DOE faces both regulatory and statutory barriers to disposing of this waste. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has taken steps to address certain regulatory barriers, including (1) preparing to update its regulations that restrict near-surface disposal of GTCC waste and (2) planning to clarify whether NRC can relinquish regulatory authority related to GTCC waste disposal to states. However, without clarification of NRC’s statutory ability to relinquish this authority, NRC could face litigation. This could delay disposal and lead to continued costs and risks. Additionally, DOE is required by statute to await congressional direction before proceeding with a decision on GTCC disposal.
GAO recommends that Congress consider (1) clarifying regulatory authority over GTCC disposal; and (2) providing direction to DOE, so that it can proceed with a decision on GTCC waste disposal. GAO also recommends that DOE update its guidance for environmental analyses to (1) quantify uncertainty and (2) enhance transparency. DOE agreed with GAO’s recommendations.