Thursday, October 11, 2007

Government Financial Liabilities For Commercial Nuclear Waste

Oct 4: The House Budget Committee, Chaired by Representative John Spratt, Jr. (D-SC) held a hearing entitled, Issues in Federal Government Financial Liabilities: Commercial Nuclear Waste. Witnesses testifying at the hearing included representatives from the: Congressional Budget Office (CBO); Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, U.S. Department of Energy; and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The CBO testified that, by law, the Federal government is responsible for permanently disposing of spent nuclear fuel generated by civilian facilities, which pay fees for that waste disposal service. Regardless of how the government meets that responsibility, discharging those liabilities will require significant Federal spending over many decades. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) authorized a system to manage radioactive waste, including an underground repository to permanently dispose of spent nuclear fuel from civilian facilities. Currently, the Federal government is 10 years behind schedule in its contractual obligations to remove and dispose of such waste; by the time the repository might be opened, it is likely to face at least a 20-year waste backlog.

In the absence of a federal underground repository to accept nuclear waste for storage, taxpayers are now starting to pay -- in the form of legal settlements with utilities -- for a decentralized waste storage system at sites around the country. (Those payments are being made from the Department of the Treasury’s Judgment Fund.) The Department of Energy (DOE) currently estimates that payments to utilities pursuant to such settlements will total at least $7 billion, and possibly much more if the program’s schedule continues to slip. Regardless of whether or when the government opens the planned repository, those payments are likely to continue for several decades.

Ultimately, the repository that is now authorized under NWPA will not provide sufficient capacity to store all of the waste for which the federal government is responsible. The statutory cap on the amount of waste that can be stored there is significantly lower than the volume of waste that DOE expects will be generated during the lifetimes of existing nuclear facilities, let alone the additional volume from any new facilities that may be built. Without a change in law to allow construction of disposal facilities with sufficient capacity to accommodate all of the waste that will be generated, taxpayers will need to pay utilities to dispose of a substantial amount of additional waste in the future. Contractual liabilities associated with nuclear waste from civilian power plants are one component of the government’s broader liabilities for remedying environmental contamination, much of which results from operating the nation’s nuclear weapons complex.

Access links to all witness testimony (
click here, scroll down to 10/4/07). [*Nuclear]