History of Nuclear Waste Policy

You might wonder why there is a nuclear waste problem in the first place. After all, nuclear power has been generated since the 1950s. It’s a complicated story that involves changes in national policy, security concerns, and, frankly, politics. When electric power companies first considered using nuclear energy to generate electricity in the 1950′s, it was assumed that when the nuclear fuel was used up, or “spent,” and no longer able to generate power efficiently, it would be recycled so that it could be used again. This chronology tells the tale.1957

A study by the National Academy of Science, determined that the federal government should build a permanent geologic repository for high-level nuclear waste. 1970
The federal government formally declared that it is responsible for permanent disposal. 1977
President Carter, concerned about the possibility of nuclear proliferation, banned commercial reprocessing of spent fuel for private companies. This left no long-term option for spent fuel storage and reprocessing available to utilities.1982
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act required the US Department of Energy to start taking utilities’ spent fuel by Jan. 31, 1998. It directed DOE to begin studying sites for permanent repositories and established a schedule for that process. 1983
Nuclear utilities and the U.S. Department of Energy signed contracts requiring the DOE to begin accepting spent fuel from the commercial power plants by Jan. 31, 1998. At the same time, the power companies would begin collecting from ratepayers and paying 1/10 of a cent per kilowatt hour of nuclear-generated electricity into a federal nuclear waste fund that would pay for development and operation of the repository. 1987
Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to require DOE to focus its efforts on studying Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the permanent repository site. The amendments also created a federal Nuclear Waste Negotiator to find a volunteer host for an interim storage facility or a permanent repository. 1990′s
It became clear to nuclear utilities that the federal government would not be ready to accept their spent fuel by 1998. They began to look at interim storage options that would allow them to continue operating their safe, clean nuclear plants, notwithstanding DOE’s default. 1998
The January 31 deadline for the federal government to begin taking commercial nuclear waste came and went. The proposed Yucca Mountain, NV site was still being studied and was at least 12 years from completion. A Nuclear Waste Reform Bill that would have given DOE authority to build a temporary storage facility at Yucca Mountain failed to pass Congress. Several utility companies filed suit against the federal government for breach of contract. 2000
The Nuclear Waste Bill passed both the House and Senate, but in the Senate there were not enough votes to override a threatened presidential veto. Therefore, differences in the House and Senate bills were never resolved and the bill was allowed to die.The science and technology involved in safely storing spent nuclear fuel is clearly easier than the politics. The biggest challenge for both the industry and public policy makers is public education to overcome irrational fears of anything “nuclear.”