Since the proposed Yucca Mountain National Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada became a memory in 2009, America's commercial nuclear reactors have accumulated nearly 70,000 metric tons of radioactive nuclear waste. Sooner-than-later, the lack of a place to dispose of it will become a real problem, says the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
As the GAO states in its report to Congress, spent nuclear fuel is "one of the most hazardous substances created by humans." And with no permanent disposal site on the federal drawing board, all 70,000 tons of it remains stored at reactor sites in 33 states. About 74% is simply stored in pools of water, while only 26% has been transferred to slightly more secure dry storage casks.
Worse yet, reports the GAO, if a new permanent nuclear waste disposal site were approved today, it would be at least 40 years before the facility could begin accepting shipments. During that time, the amount of spent nuclear fuel would at least double to over 140,000 tons, according to the GAO.
If as the GAO predicts, most of the nation's commercial nuclear power reactors have ceased operations by 2040, the technology and personnel needed to prepare that 140,000 tons of nuclear waste for transportation to the permanent disposal site "may be limited."
GAO's investigation confirmed that the greatest potential damage to human health or the environment would come from a self-sustaining fire burning spent nuclear fuel stored in a drained or partially-drained pool of water. Such an event, says the GAO could result in a "severe widespread release of radiation."
While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), regulators of the nation's spent nuclear fuel, told the GAO it considers the probability of such a fire to be low, its consequences could be high. "These consequences include widespread contamination, a significant increase in the probability of fatal cancer in the affected population, and the possibility of early fatalities," stated the GAO.
What the GAO Recommended: The GAO's recommendations focused on facilitating the decades-long process of selecting and developing environmentally safe long term nuclear waste storage or disposal sites.
Specifically, the GAO recommended that the NRC and the Department of Energy develop a now non-existent mechanism for ensuring that officials planning and building future nuclear waste disposal sites have easy access to the mountain of classified studies on safely transporting and storing spent nuclear fuel already conducted by and for the NRC during the Yucca Mountain years.
"Without such a mechanism," stated the GAO, "it may be difficult and time-consuming to access the necessary studies."