Attention to Societal Priorities Can Help Guide Nuclear Waste Management Policy

For Release

November 15, 2010

To break the impasse over how to deal with spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power plants, a new study from the RAND Corporation suggests policymakers focus on how various waste management strategies address societal priorities related to nuclear energy.

Concerns about climate change and declining fossil fuel resources are spurring renewed interest in nuclear power, while one of the major impediments to increasing nuclear power is the decades-long impasse over how to deal with spent nuclear fuel. If nuclear power is to be a sustainable option for the United States, methods for managing spent nuclear fuel that meet stringent safety, security and environmental standards must be developed.

An underground repository for spent fuel was originally planned to open at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, in 1998. But the facility never opened and about 60,000 metric tons of commercial spent fuel remain in storage at nuclear power plant sites around the country. The Yucca Mountain program was recently mothballed and a new national spent fuel management policy now must be crafted.

RAND examined different technical and institutional approaches for managing spent nuclear fuel and developed four possible strategies: proceed with the Yucca Mountain repository; develop centralized interim storage in conjunction with permanent geological disposal; pursue advanced fuel cycles; and maintain extended on-site storage.

"There are multiple ways to approach spent fuel management that are feasible from a technical viewpoint," said Tom LaTourrette, lead author of the study and a senior physical scientist with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "We find that different strategies can be distinguished in terms of their implications for the welfare of future generations, the future of nuclear power and priorities for spent fuel disposal."

The study concludes that aggressively pursuing advanced fuel cycles is attractive primarily if the United States is convinced that nuclear power will grow to be the dominant source of electric power. In that case, constraints on repository capacity and uranium resources are important. Maintaining extended on-site storage is attractive only if all other options are deemed unacceptable. Proceeding with Yucca Mountain or the centralized storage-geologic disposal strategies are most attractive when the top priorities are facilitating the growth of nuclear power and not leaving spent fuel disposal for future generations.

The study finds that maintaining public trust and confidence will be a major hurdle for any spent-fuel management strategy. Given claims of unfair decision-making and the historically adversarial relationships between federal, state and local governments in debates about nuclear waste disposal, it is likely that any new strategy will have more credibility if it is managed by a new organization outside of the U.S. Department of Energy. Such an organization could take several forms: public, private or a public-private hybrid such as a public corporation.

Other findings from the study include:

  • There is generally no pressing technical urgency to remove spent fuel from nuclear power plant sites — on-site storage is safe, secure and low cost, and space limitations are generally minimal.
  • Centralized interim storage is anticipated to be similarly safe, secure, technically straightforward and low cost.
  • Advanced fuel-cycle technologies would require several decades of substantial funding before they could become viable at a commercial scale. While some advanced fuel-cycle configurations have the potential to significantly reduce geological repository capacity requirements, they may have little benefit in terms of reducing a repository's long-term environmental risk.
  • Technical obstacles to developing a permanent geological repository that meets current regulatory requirements are likely to be surmountable.

The report, "Managing Spent Nuclear Fuel: Strategy Alternatives and Policy Implications," can be found at Other authors include Thomas Light, Debra Knopman and James T. Bartis.

The study is a product of the RAND Corporation's Investment in People and Ideas program. Support for this program is provided, in part, by the generosity of RAND's donors and by the fees earned on client-funded research.

Research for the study was conducted within the RAND Environment, Energy, and Economic Development Program program of the Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment division at RAND. The mission of Infrastructure, Safety and Environment is to improve the development, operation, use and protection of society's essential physical assets and natural resources and to enhance the related social assets of safety and security of individuals in transit and in their workplaces and communities.

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