Nuclear Waste Storage Remains Risky, Continues To Vex Government

05/13/2011 12:33 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2011

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05/13/2011 11:20 AM EDT

Where Do We Store Nuclear Waste? Solution Could Cost Billions, Take 20 Years

The controversy over President Obama's decision to pull the plug on the decades-long, multi-billion-dollar Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project keeps brewing.

The latest Government Accountability Office report, "Commercial Nuclear Waste: Effects of a Termination of the Yucca Mountain Repository Program," should only fuel the fire. Though terminating the program has some benefits, the report finds it will cost the government billions and perhaps 20 years to restart the whole process of finding a safe place to store such waste. Located deep underground, the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was intended for permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel from power plants and high-level radioactive waste from Pentagon facilities, and attracted intense opposition from some environmentalists and safety watchdogs.

The administration's move frees up the Energy Department to explore more-popular alternatives to radioactive waste management. But since an affordable and effective option doesn't yet exist, the prognosis is grim. The decision will also prolong the need for interim storage of spent fuel on-site at nuclear plants -- a practice which helped intensify the recent nuclear crisis in Japan. By failing to take custody of the waste by 1998, as required by law, such on-site storage has cost the government more than $15.4 billion.

Currently, about 65,000 metric tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel are stored at 75 sites in 33 states, and the amount is increasing by about 2,000 metric tons a year, GAO said. Here is the Nuclear Energy Institute's map of nuclear waste storage sites in 2009.

Meanwhile, Rep. Darryl Issa (R-Calif.), frustrated with the lack of response to his request for documents about the project, is threatening the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with a subpoena.

In the May 6 letter, Issa calls the delay "unacceptable." The agency has refused to make public whether it will allow the Energy Department to withdraw its license application for the repository, reports the Bureau of National Affairs.