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Whether nuclear fuel is used only once or recycled for subsequent use, disposal of high-level radioactive byproducts in a permanent geologic repository is necessary. Underground disposal in a specially designed facility is an essential element of a sustainable, integrated used nuclear fuel management program. 

The nuclear energy industry supports completion of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review of the Yucca Mountain license application and publication of its results. 

Development of consolidated storage and disposal facilities should be pursued at the same time. The target date for opening of Yucca Mountain or an alternative repository site should be no more than 20 years after a consolidated storage site is opened. 

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act directing the Department of Energy to build and operate a repository for used nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste. The act set a deadline of 1998 for the Energy Department to begin moving used fuel from nuclear energy facilities. 

To fund the federal program, the act established a Nuclear Waste Fund. Since 1983, electricity consumers have paid into the fund one-tenth of a cent for every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced at nuclear power plants. These fees continue to accumulate at a rate of $750 million a year, and the fund accrues more than $1 billion in interest each year. The fund’s balance, as of May 2013, is more than $29 billion. Without a high-level radioactive waste management program and annual congressional appropriations, these funds are not available for their intended purpose.

The Yucca Mountain Program

In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, directing the Energy Department to exclusively study Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, a remote desert location, as the site for a potential repository for geologic disposal of used nuclear fuel. After two decades of site studies, the federal government filed a construction license application in 2008 for a repository at Yucca Mountain.

However, President Obama in 2010 stopped the Yucca Mountain license review and empaneled a study commission to recommend a new policy for the long-term management of used fuel and high-level radioactive waste. In January 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future published its final recommendations, most of which are supported by the industry. The Energy Department’s used fuel management strategy to implement the commission’s recommendations was issued in January 2013.

Government Liabilities

The Department of Energy was required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to begin removing used fuel from reactor sites by 1998. The government’s failure to do so has resulted in nearly $2 billion in court-awarded damage settlements being paid from the taxpayer-funded Judgment Fund to compensate energy companies for storing the used fuel onsite. Damages could reach more than $20 billion by 2020 and up to $500 million annually after 2020.