Wasted Opportunities: Resolving the Impasse in United States Nuclear Waste Policy

Article excerpt

Synopsis: This article examines the problem of nuclear waste disposal and its implications for the future of the nuclear industry in the United States. Following a brief introduction, Part II investigates the process that generates spent nuclear fuel and discusses the current legal framework established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). It also provides a brief overview of Yucca Mountain, succinctly tracing the project from its origins to the present. Part III summarizes developments in U.S. nuclear waste policy from 2002 to today, notably the creation of a Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on America's Nuclear Future. Part IV discusses three of the central recommendations from the BRC's final report. Part V analyzes available alternatives to Yucca Mountain and discusses the costs and benefits of each. Part VI provides conclusions pertaining to the sufficiency of the BRC's recommendations and suggestions for policymakers. In following this structure, the article provides one of the first comprehensive critiques of the BRC's suggestions and examines their effectiveness. Furthermore, it provides a necessary critical evaluation of the current statutory structure developed to address the nuclear waste disposal issue, and highlights major areas that policymakers must address if nuclear power is to have a future in the United States.


Nuclear power stands at a crossroads both in the United States and around the world. As of 2012, thirty-two countries operated 435 nuclear reactors constituting 374 gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity.1 Together, these reactors produced about 13.5% of the world's electricity, or 2,518 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh). In the United States, which hosts 23.9% of the world's reactors, nuclear power plants accounted for almost 20% of national electricity generation from the country's 104 commercially operating reactors.2

However, since 1996, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued only four licenses for new reactors.3 High construction costs compared to other energy sources continue to impede industry growth and the catastrophic disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi facility in Japan resulted in a world-wide reassessment of the world's aging nuclear reactor fleet.4 Falling natural gas prices have further eroded whatever financial advantages new nuclear units had in the late 1990s and early 2000s.5

Despite these major problems, some industry insiders are predicting a "nuclear renaissance."6 The nuclear industry is developing so-called "Generation IV" reactors that are safer, cheaper, generate less waste, and use fuel more efficiently than reactors currently operating.7 Nuclear power provides a source of constant base-load power required to maintain electric grids and back up more intermittent sources such as wind and solar.8 Nuclear power continues to be heavily subsidized, with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 providing various federal incentives for nuclear power 9 and more than half (54%) of all federal energy research subsidies from 2002 to 2007 going to nuclear fission.10

Moreover, with the threat of climate change and regulation of carbon emissions, utilities and governments alike view nuclear power as a clean alternative to traditional fossil fuel burning plants.11 Most recently, President Obama's 2011 State of the Union Address "called for nuclear power to be included in a national goal of generating 80% of U.S. electricity 'from clean energy sources' by 2035."12 In particular, the Obama Administration's Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future contains several provisions that indicate nuclear power is going to play an expanded role in the United States' future energy portfolio alongside renewables and natural gas.13 The Blueprint asks for more research and development concerning nuclear generation and promotes continued federal financial support for the nuclear industry through a loan guarantee program.14 The Obama Administration's support is already showing results. …