NUCLEAR WASTE POLICY DILEMMA
THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS:

A CHRONOLOGY


 

1945 The first nuclear weapons are produced by the United States.

1954 The Atomic Energy Act was passed by Congress directing the federal government to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy, with the understanding that disposal of the highly radioactive waste produced would be the responsibility of the federal government.

1956 The National Academy of Sciences recommended deep geologic disposal of the long-lived, highly radioactive wastes from nuclear reactors, suggesting that buried salt deposits and other rock types be investigated for permanent repositories.

Early 1960s The Atomic Energy Commission began investigating the buried salt beds of the Salina Basin beneath Michigan and Ohio, but when state and local officials became aware of the studies they forced them to be terminated.

Early 1970s The Atomic Energy Commission announced that a salt mine, at Lyons, Kansas, would be developed as a high-level radioactive waste repository, only to reverse its decision after Kansas State geologists discovered the site to be riddled with abandoned oil and gas exploration boreholes.

Later 1970s Federal government screening of sites for a geologic repository continued with emphasis on buried salt deposits, and on federal nuclear facility sites.

1980 Deep geologic disposal was selected by the Department of Energy (DOE), in an Environmental Impact Statement, as the preferred alternative for permanent disposal of commercial high-level nuclear waste.

1982 Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, establishing a repository site screening process, requiring two repositories to assure regional equity, establishing a schedule leading to federal waste acceptance for disposal beginning in 1998, establishing the Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for the waste program with fees collected on the generation of electricity from nuclear power plants, and requiring that the repositories be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission using environmental protection standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

1983 The DOE named 9 previously screened potentially acceptable repository sites in six states, with 7 in salt deposits, and two on western federal nuclear facility sites, in buried volcanic rock deposits.

1984 The DOE issued Guidelines for the Recommendation of Sites, as required by the Act, and continued investigation of the potentially acceptable sites.

1985 The President, as provided by the Act, determined that highly radioactive waste from nuclear weapons production would be disposed with commercial high-level waste.

1986 The DOE, in final Environmental Assessments, nominated 5 candidate repository sites, from the original nine sites, and then selected three western sites, in Nevada, Texas, and Washington, for detailed investigation, from which one was to be selected later for repository licensing.

1986 The DOE indefinitely postponed the second repository site screening program, after much objection from states in the northern mid-west and east where potentially acceptable repository sites, in granite, were proposed.

1986 The DOE proposed to Congress that an interim Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) facility for commercial waste be authorized for development at a site in Tennessee.

1987 With rising site characterization cost projections ($1 billion per site) and significant siting delays predicted, the House was considering a siting moratorium and nuclear waste policy review and the Senate was considering sequential characterization of the three candidate repository sites.

Late 1987 A House-Senate conference committee drafted, and Congress adopted the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act which was said to put the repository program "back on track" by:

  • naming Yucca Mountain as the only site to be characterized for development as a repository;

  • ending the second repository screening program;

  • prohibiting studies of repository sites in granite;

  • linking development of Monitored Retrievable Storage to progress in siting and licensing a repository;

  • prohibiting siting the MRS in Tennessee;

  • establishing the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator to seek volunteer states or Indian tribes to host a repository or MRS;

  • establishing the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board to review the technical validity of DOE's site characterization work and nuclear waste transportation planning;

  • offering Nevada financial benefits in exchange for giving up its legal right to object to development of the repository at Yucca Mountain.

1989 The Secretary of Energy determined that the nuclear waste program could not succeed in its present form and developed a new program strategy that called for waste acceptance beginning at a repository in 2003.

1990 The National Academy of Sciences Board on Radioactive Waste Management determined that regulation for licensing a repository needed to be less stringent and prescriptive, and DOE needed more flexibility in siting and licensing the repository.

1992 DOE testified to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that overly stringent NRC and EPA repository licensing regulations were causing delays and escalating costs in the Yucca Mountain Project, implying that relief was necessary for the project to succeed.

Late 1992 Congress adopted Section 801 of the Energy Policy Act of 1992 which instructed EPA to establish new site-specific environmental regulations for Yucca Mountain based on "reasonable" safety standards recommended by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and the NRC was instructed to revise its repository licensing regulations to conform to the new EPA standards.

Late 1992 The Secretary of Energy announced that the efforts of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator to provide a volunteer Monitored Retrievable Storage site had failed, and a new strategy was needed to begin waste acceptance from the commercial reactors in 1998. (The Negotiator Office was terminated in 1994.)

1993- 1994 A new Program Approach was being developed (and finally adopted in 1994) that set the beginning of waste acceptance in 2010, relies on DOE's development and distribution of Multi-Purpose Containers (for waste storage, transport, and possibly disposal) to begin interim waste storage in 1998, sets out a schedule for site characterization (costing $6 billion) leading to a repository license application to NRC in 2001, and defers some site characterization work to a long repository performance confirmation period lasting up to 100 years after beginning waste emplacement.

Mid- 1995 Bills are pending in Congress that put highest priority on DOE providing interim waste storage, at Yucca Mountain, beginning in 1998, or as soon as possible, and continuing Yucca Mountain site characterization as a lower priority. Other bills call for stopping the waste program pending a comprehensive nuclear waste policy review, and other initiatives would stop the repository program and provide only for interim storage.

August 1995 The National Academy of Sciences panel released its recommendations for a new, risk-based site specific EPA standard for Yucca Mountain. The EPA began drafting new standards for Yucca Mountain which are still pending in mid-1999. NRC expects to issue a site specific repository licensing rule for Yucca Mountain within one year after the EPA standard is final. 

Fall 1995 Congress appropriated only about half of the money DOE said was necessary to implement the Program Approach, which resulted in DOE revising its plans for the program. The development of the Multi-Purpose Container was terminated, as were plans for interim storage. A new schedule was developed for the Yucca Mountain Project that includes a "viability assessment" in late 1998 to be used by Congress to decide whether the site's potential suitability, and the cost and schedule to finish site characterization, license the repository, and operate it are acceptable. If the program continues, the site suitability determination would be in 2001, with a license application to be submitted to NRC in 2002. Repository operations would begin in 2010. The DOE site suitability criteria would also be revised.

May 1996 DOE's new Program Plan is completed. Bills are still pending in Congress to develop an interim storage site at the Nevada Test Site in 1998, and DOE is doing generic planning for an interim site in the event such a bill is passed. President Clinton said he would veto such a bill that names Nevada as an interim storage site. The EPA also has objected to the bills because they contain provisions that would remove EPA's regulatory authority for the site and set a lax, unprecedented radiation protection standard for the site.

Late 1996 In the 1997 Energy and Water Appropriations Act, Congress directed that a Viability Assessment of the Yucca Mountain project be delivered by October 1998. The VA is to contain (a) a preliminary design concept for the repository and waste package; (b) a total system performance assessment for a Yucca Mountain repository; (c) a plan and cost for the remaining work necessary to prepare a license application; and (d) a cost estimate to construct and operate the repository.

Dec. 1996 DOE issues a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to revise its site suitability guidelines for a Yucca Mountain repository. It relies on performance assessment and contains no technical qualifying and disqualifying conditions for the site.

1997 House and Senate bills emphasizing interim storage of spent fuel at the Nevada Test Site are again introduced. President Clinton again says he will veto any such bill.

Jan. 1998 DOE issues a revision of its Waste Isolation and Containment Strategy that is re-named the Repository Safety Strategy. Limiting doses from repository releases relies on (a) limited water contacting waste packages; (b) long waste package lifetime; (c) slow rate of release of radionuclides from the waste form; and (d) concentration reduction during transport through engineered and natural barriers.

July 1998 DOE issues a revised Program Plan, estimating the program will cost $1.47 billion from FY 99 to 2002 when a license application will be submitted. Program cost through FY 98 were approximately $3 billion.

Dec. 1998 DOE issues the Viability Assessment for a Yucca Mountain repository, reporting that much work still needs to be done for a site recommendation in 2001 and a license application in 2002, but there are no known "show stoppers".

Feb. 1999 NRC proposes a new Repository Licensing rule, specific to licensing a Yucca Mountain repository. It is a performance based rule that, in advance of EPA repository safety standards being promulgated, proposes a dose limit and defines a critical group of potential dose recipients and their future condition. As required by law, NRC stated it would conform its licensing rule to an EPA repository safety standard when such a standard is promulgated. (As of mid-1999, there was no EPA standard).  

Early-mid 1999 House and Senate bills emphasizing interim storage of spent fuel at the Nevada Test Site are introduced again. Again, President Clinton has said he will veto any such bill. Additional bills and amendments are being prepared to direct studies of transmutation technology, and to have the government take title to spent fuel at reactors and otherwise financially assist utilities with on-site storage. In return utilities would have to agree to cease litigation for damages from the Department of Energy's failure to begin accepting spent fuel for disposal by January 31, 1998.