U.S. Congress Addresses “High-Level” Nuclear Waste

With passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the U.S. Department of Energy was required to locate and develop a permanent repository for high-level nuclear wastes.

Summary of Event

After a long process of negotiations, both the Senate and the House of Representatives on December 21, 1982, gave final passage to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), and President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law on January 7, 1983. The NWPA was designed to deal with the controversial issue of the disposal of spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy;power plants Such rods contained high-level nuclear wastes that were intensely radioactive and lethal and were expected to remain so for thousands of years. By 1982, about 10,000 tons of spent fuel rods were in temporary storage tanks next to power plants, and it was projected that, by the end of the century, the figure would be 41,500 tons. Although small in volume compared with other industrial wastes, this high-level waste was deadly to humans and could render land or water unusable. Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982)
Nuclear waste;legislation
[kw]U.S. Congress Addresses “High-Level” Nuclear Waste (Dec. 21, 1982)
[kw]Congress Addresses “High-Level” Nuclear Waste, U.S. (Dec. 21, 1982)
[kw]”High-Level” Nuclear Waste, U.S. Congress Addresses (Dec. 21, 1982)
[kw]Nuclear Waste, U.S. Congress Addresses “High-Level” (Dec. 21, 1982)
[kw]Waste, U.S. Congress Addresses “High-Level” Nuclear (Dec. 21, 1982)
Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982)
Nuclear waste;legislation
[g]North America;Dec. 21, 1982: U.S. Congress Addresses “High-Level” Nuclear Waste[05030]
[g]United States;Dec. 21, 1982: U.S. Congress Addresses “High-Level” Nuclear Waste[05030]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 21, 1982: U.S. Congress Addresses “High-Level” Nuclear Waste[05030]
[c]Energy;Dec. 21, 1982: U.S. Congress Addresses “High-Level” Nuclear Waste[05030]
[c]Environmental issues;Dec. 21, 1982: U.S. Congress Addresses “High-Level” Nuclear Waste[05030]
McClure, James
Udall, Morris K.
Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;environmental policy
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;environmental policy

The NWPA authorized the Department of Energy Department of Energy, U.S. (DOE) to choose potential sites for both permanent and long-term storage. There were to be two permanent sites, thousands of feet under the ground, in basalt or granite caverns. The DOE was to recommend from three to five satisfactory sites to the Congress by 1985, and the president was to make the final choices in consultation with the states involved. Before making its selection, the DOE was required to make a comprehensive environmental impact statement, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was to provide an independent supervision of the DOE’s activities. The president was to choose the first permanent site in a western state before 1987, and he was to select the second in the East or Midwest by 1989. The law stipulated that the first repository would begin accepting wastes for permanent storage by 1998.

The long-term repositories were also called “monitored, retrievable storage” (MRS) facilities because they were expected to hold, for one hundred years, spent fuel that would be available for reprocessing, a complex job of separating useful uranium and plutonium from wastes. This provision of the law was based on hopes for future technological innovations that would make reprocessing truly feasible, thereby reducing the volume of storage. Many critics of nuclear power disliked the idea of MRS facilities, because the facilities could simply become a cheaper, less secure alternative for dealing with wastes.

The NWPA required the nuclear power plants to continue to store their spent fuel rods in temporary storage pools until such time as the repositories were constructed. The financing of the future repositories would be accomplished through a federal surcharge on nuclear plants and the charges would be passed on to consumers. An amendment to the act gave states the power to veto any proposed site. The veto required a vote in both houses of Congress to override the veto. Another amendment allowed high-level military wastes (about 10 percent of the total volume) to be stored with the civilian wastes.

In its early years, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Atomic Energy Commission, U.S. (AEC) had placed a low priority on the question of nuclear waste. In part, this was because officials had assumed that much of the waste could be dealt with in reprocessing plants. By the late 1960’s, however, nuclear power plants were beginning to run out of storage capacity for spent fuel, and in a comprehensive study in 1969, AEC scientists concluded that spent fuel should be converted to solid form and sent to federally controlled repositories. The AEC recommended and publicized that a salt mine in Lyons, Kansas, was a suitable location, but agency personnel were embarrassed when non-AEC scientists discovered serious leakage problems in 1970.

When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, the issue of nuclear wastes was of widespread concern. Private industry appeared to be abandoning the hope that reprocessing could be profitable, and in any case, the Carter administration concluded that reprocessing plants posed a threat to the policy of controlling the proliferation of plutonium used in nuclear weapons. Carter did appoint an interagency review group to suggest policy options; the group’s report in 1979 expressed urgency about the problem of spent fuel rods and recommended consideration of deep geologic storage. With Carter’s endorsement of the report, both houses of Congress passed different bills in 1980, but the two houses were unable to agree on the question of a veto for potential host states.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, all concerned parties were eager for a law dealing with high-level wastes. Reagan, long a supporter of nuclear power, was hopeful that private enterprise could make reprocessing profitable, but he did not disagree with most of Carter’s recommendations on storage sites. By 1982, ninety-five orders for nuclear reactors had been canceled, and with all of the negative publicity associated with nuclear power plants, industry leaders hoped that waste-disposal legislation would help their public image. Environmental lobbyists also wanted to see legislation enacted, but they were not going to allow the nuclear industry to claim prematurely that the waste-disposal problem had been solved.

In this context in 1981, Senator James McClure, the Republican chairman of the Energy Committee, introduced the McClure bill, which resembled the earlier recommendations of the Carter administration. In the debates, senators from sparsely populated states tended to be in favor of many regional repositories, but states with larger populations had the votes to reject this idea. Senator Alan K. Simpson Simpson, Alan K. added a controversial amendment to combine military and civilian wastes in the same repository. After a number of adjustments, the McClure bill easily passed the Senate in April, 1982.

Approval in the House of Representatives, with its Democratic majority, was more difficult. Representative Morris K. Udall, chairman of the House Interior Committee, and other Democrats managed to write a bill that was more sensitive to the views of the host states, and the bill passed the House by a voice vote on December 2. House and Senate leaders met to work out their differences on December 14. Just as they believed they had worked out a compromise, Senator William Proxmire Proxmire, William of Wisconsin threatened a filibuster unless the bill required both chambers to override a state’s veto. When Senator McClure agreed to Proxmire’s amendment, McClure and Udall put together the final bill and sent it to the lame-duck session of Congress, where it passed easily on December 20, just hours before Congress was to adjourn. In signing the bill in January, 1983, Reagan stated that the bill “should demonstrate to the public that the challenge of coping with nuclear wastes can and will be met.”


In 1982, the progress heralded by enactment of the NWPA was overshadowed by frustrations in locating an appropriate site for high-level wastes. When hearings were held in potential host states, angry crowds turned out in huge numbers with the cry of NIMBY (not in my backyard). NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome The Department of Energy found it impossible to meet the earliest deadlines for site selection. In 1984, moreover, Getty Oil Company Getty Oil Company announced that it was abandoning its attempt to reprocess spent fuel at the Barnwell plant; as no other serious efforts were being made to reprocess spent fuel, it appeared that the reprocessing business was financially infeasible. This meant that the storing of high-level nuclear wastes would be more difficult than had been anticipated.

In 1986, the U.S. secretary of the interior announced that the list of three candidates for the first permanent repository included the states of Texas, Nevada, and Washington. The secretary also announced that an attempt to find a second site in the East or Midwest had been postponed indefinitely because of public opposition and political realities. The next year, the DOE announced that Yucca Mountain, Nevada, Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste respository[Yucca Mountain nuclear waste respository] had been chosen as the site for the repository. In Nevada, the opposition to high-level wastes was not as great as elsewhere, although the governor and others expressed concern about a negative influence on tourism. Although Yucca Mountain appeared to be ideal in many ways, some scientists expressed concerns about climatic change and possible volcanic activity.

On December 22, 1987, Congress, as part of a deficit reconciliation bill, passed important amendments to the NWPA. The major provision designated Yucca Mountain as the only candidate site eligible for consideration as a permanent repository. In the event that the DOE were to decide that the site were unsatisfactory, the department would be required to notify Congress, to take steps to reclaim the site, and to recommend further action for permanent disposal.

The NWPA amendments also authorized the DOE to designate, construct, and operate a long-term, retrievable-storage facility, and to recommend to Congress whether such a facility should be a part of the nuclear-waste management system. Another provision created the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board as an independent agency to evaluate the DOE’s activities in nuclear-waste management. Finally, the amendments established a nuclear-waste negotiator, appointed by the president, to reach agreements with states and Native American tribes about the hosting of long-term or permanent repositories. Such an agreement, however, would require statutory approval by Congress.

After the passage of the 1987 amendments, frustrations and unforeseen problems complicated the efforts to deal with high-level nuclear wastes. Few observers were surprised in November, 1989, when the Department of Energy announced that it was moving the target date for opening a storage site to the year 2010 at the earliest. New temporary storage pools would be constructed to house the increasing number of spent fuel rods. In effect, the search for a satisfactory resolution to the problem of disposal of high-level nuclear wastes was postponed until the twenty-first century.

As of 2002, nuclear materials were stored in 131 aboveground facilities in thirty-nine states, with 161 million Americans residing within 75 miles of those sites. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon made fulfillment of the NWPA mandate more compelling than ever, and the consensus of the administration of George W. Bush Bush, George W. was that a central site offered more protection for high-level nuclear wastes than did the existing 131 sites.

On February 14, 2002, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham Abraham, Spencer recommended approval of the Yucca Mountain site to President George W. Bush. The president accepted the recommendation and forwarded it to Congress the next day. Both the House and the Senate approved the selection of the site on July 9, 2002. President Bush issued the following statement:

Finding a safe and central repository is not only mandated by law, but it is in America’s national security and homeland security interests. . . . Since the Congress passed a law requiring a repository in 1982, this has been a serious issue for the American people. The President recognizes that the law now gives Nevada the opportunity to disapprove the recommendation and, if they do, then the Congress will have an opportunity to act. After two decades, the time has come to resolve this issue once and for all. Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982)
Nuclear waste;legislation

Further Reading

  • Barlett, Donald, and James Steele. Forevermore: Nuclear Wastes in America. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. Readable, well-researched journalistic account presents an anti-nuclear power point of view. Includes interesting photographs.
  • Campbell, John. Collapse of an Industry: Nuclear Power and the Contradictions of U.S. Policy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988. Contains a good account of the attempt to deal with the problem of nuclear waste, but some interpretations are based on questionable assumptions.
  • Carter, Luther J. Nuclear Imperatives and the Public Trust: Dealing with Radioactive Wastes. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1987. Excellent resource is readable, scholarly, and balanced. Includes a concise history of the problem of nuclear disposal, with a detailed account of the NWPA of 1982.
  • Cohen, Bernard. Before It’s Too Late: A Scientist’s Case for Nuclear Energy. New York: Plenum Press, 1982. Interesting pro-nuclear power presentation by an eminent scientist. Somewhat overly optimistic about technology, but includes much stimulating material on the problems of waste storage and the statistical probability of mishap.
  • Hare, Tony. Nuclear Waste Disposal. New York: Gloucester Press, 1991. Clearly written explanation of the issue intended primarily for students at the middle school level. Includes excellent drawings.
  • Kruschke, Earl, and Byron M. Jackson. Nuclear Energy Policy: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1990. Contains a chronology and a concise introduction to the issues involved in the production of nuclear energy, including waste disposal.
  • Murray, Raymond L. Understanding Radioactive Waste. 5th ed. Columbus, Ohio: Battelle Press, 2003. Technical volume explains the nature of radioactive waste and provides suggestions for its management and disposal.
  • Riley, Peter. Nuclear Waste: Law, Policy, and Pragmatism. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004. Examines laws and government policies concerning nuclear waste around the world. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.

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