Committee Examines Future Cost of Nuclear Waste Storage

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Publication date: 
7 November 2007

Despite years of study, and the expenditure of billions of dollars, the problem of how best to dispose of the nation's nuclear waste remains unresolved. As reviewed in FYI #109, there is disagreement about the feasibility of spent fuel reprocessing. The nation's only proposed repository beneath Yucca Mountain, Nevada is 20 years behind schedule.

An October 4 hearing of the House Budget Committee was all about dollars-and-cents. The committee heard testimony about the billions of dollars it will cost to open Yucca Mountain, and the billions of dollars of liability settlements that have, and will, be awarded to utility companies because of delays in opening the repository.

Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-SC) opened the hearing by explaining that the federal government could have between $7 and $30 billion in total liability costs because of its contractual failure to take possession of spent fuel from electric utilities. In 1983, the Department of Energy signed 76 contracts to accept this waste beginning in 1998. Utility ratepayers have paid $14.8 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund since the contacts were signed.

Rep. Jon Porter (R-NV) also gave opening remarks. "For 25 years, we have studied a hole in the ground to death . . . we are looking at a hole to no where," he said, adding that the federal government has spent $10 to $11 billion in developing the Yucca Mountain repository. He chided Members of Congress for an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to the selection of Yucca Mountain as the nation's sole underground repository.

The first witness to testify was Edward Sproat, Director of the DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. Sproat was an effective witness, and left little doubt that he would meet or beat his deadline to submit a Yucca Mountain construction license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by June 30, 2008. If the repository holds to its schedule, the best achievable date for its opening is March 2017. This schedule assumes that DOE will receive its future $1.5 to $2.0 billion annual requests for the repository. The program has historically received $350 to $500 million. Sproat warned committee members that without this funding, "the repository will not get built." Recognizing that this is a steep funding increase, he asked the committee to consider reform legislation allowing DOE to more fully access the Nuclear Waste Fund. The Fund now has a balance of $20.7 billion. Sproat also told the committee there would be significant costs if the repository's opening is slipped. If the repository is opened in 2017, the total potential liability is estimated to be $7.0 billion. If the opening is delayed to 2020, liability could increase to $11.0 billion.

Michael Hertz, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Division, of the Justice Department was the second witness. He explained that 67 cases have been filed by utilities for costs associated with their storage of spent nuclear fuel. In 2000, a federal court agreed the delay is a breach of contract. The government has paid $710 million. Some industry observers estimate eventual claims could total $50 billion.

The third witness to testify was Kim Cawley, Chief of the Natural and Physical Resources Cost Estimates Unit of the Congressional Budget Office. Cawley testified that as a result of the legal settlements, taxpayers are paying for "a decentralized waste storage system at sites around the country." He warned Yucca Mountain's 70,000 metric ton statutory cap is less than the amount of waste for which the government will eventually be responsible. Cawley noted that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects to receive 32 license applications for new nuclear plants in the next few years.

There was considerable discussion following the testimony about how much of the current and future Nuclear Waste Fund would be needed to keep the depository's opening on schedule. Also discussed was an increase in the cap on the amount of waste that can be stored at the repository. There was also an exchange about how utilities are now storing their nuclear waste on site. Sproat remarked that most plants have ample space for future storage in dry casks, adding "it's a very safe means of storage." While not disagreeing, Chairman Spratt responded, "It would seem to me that the prudent thing to do is to put it in one place."