Radioactive Waste

Status of Commercial Low-Level Waste Facilities Gao ID: RCED-95-67 May 5, 1995

Thousands of businesses, medical facilities, and universities along with more than 100 nuclear power plants generate waste material contaminated with radioactivity. These waste products, called commercially generated low-level waste, have typically been buried in shallow trenches at a few sites around the country. States plan to construct 11 new disposal facilities. These planned facilities are the result of state efforts to implement federal legislation making them responsible for developing new disposal facilities. This report assesses states' progress in developing new disposal facilities, their potential economic and environmental effects, and alternatives to the current approach to developing new facilities.

GAO found that: (1) 11 states plan to develop commercially generated low-level waste disposal facilities and the state of Washington plans to continue operating its existing disposal facility; (2) 4 states plan to complete facilities between 1997 and 2002, but the remaining states have yet to develop plans for their disposal facilities; (3) the slow progress of development is due to the controversial nature of nuclear waste disposal; (4) a smaller number of larger new facilities could accommodate the current volume of waste at less cost than a greater number of smaller facilities, but the volume of low-level waste could increase in the near future; (5) although new facilities will be necessary to store the waste in 33 states, the environmental effects of having 11 new facilities are unclear; and (6) shifting disposal responsibility from the states to the federal government could present significant challenges, and could undermine state progress in implementing the existing state approach.

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