Return of Spent Nuclear Fuel From Foreign Research Reactors to the United States

Gao ID: RCED-85-47 December 13, 1984

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel returned to the United States from foreign countries, focusing on: (1) the amount of spent fuel that has been and is projected to be received from foreign countries; (2) who has title to and responsibility for such fuel while it is in transit; (3) the agencies responsible for protecting the public from hazards related to the transportation and reprocessing of such fuel; (4) federal and local planning for accidents involving the transportation of spent fuel; and (5) the final disposition of reprocessed fuel.

GAO found that: (1) through December 1983, about 1,500 kilograms of spent fuel had been returned to the United States for reprocessing; (2) the size and number of future shipments is dependent on the availability of commercial fuel reprocessing in foreign countries; (3) all of the spent fuel received in the United States is reprocessed at one of two plants operated by the Department of Energy (DOE); (4) foreign countries retain title to spent fuel until it is delivered to the DOE plants; and (5) depending on the circumstances surrounding an accident involving spent fuel, liability would rest with either the owner of the fuel, the owner's agent, or the contract carrier shipping the fuel. GAO also found that: (1) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Transportation (DOT) are responsible for promulgating regulations for the safe transportation of spent fuel; (2) shipments originating in foreign countries must also conform to guidelines issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency; (3) inspections of spent fuel shipments are performed by DOT and DOE; (4) only one of the states contacted by GAO conducts inspections of spent fuel shipments; and (5) most of the states reviewed and both reprocessing plants had emergency response teams and plans for dealing with radiological accidents. In addition, GAO found that the uranium extracted from spent fuel is used to irradiate materials used in the production of plutonium and other radioactive metals.

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