Nuclear Waste

DOE's Repository Site Investigations, a Long and Difficult Task Gao ID: RCED-92-73 May 27, 1992

More than 20,000 metric tons of highly radioactive wastes are stored at more than 70 sites across the country. Because these wastes will remain dangerous for thousands of years, the Department of Energy (DOE) is seeking to develop an underground repository for safe, permanent disposal of this material. Under 1987 legislation, DOE must consider Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the sole potential repository site. This report focuses on (1) DOE's efforts to investigate Yucca Mountain since 1988; (2) DOE's efforts to ensure the early identification, primarily through surface-based tests, of any conditions that could disqualify the site; and (3) the effects of delays in DOE's obtaining environmental permits from the state of Nevada.

GAO found that: (1) between fiscal years 1989 and 1991, DOE spent about $523 million on the Yucca Mountain project; (2) DOE delay in obtaining a permit did not significantly affect program progress because DOE needed to develop quality assurance programs that were acceptable to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), finish developing technology for dry drilling, and redesign the exploratory studies facility before it could begin to comprehensively implement its December 1988 site characterization plan; (3) DOE has not yet developed a cohesive approach to identifying conditions that, if present, could disqualify the site for a repository; (4) the first DOE effort to identify high-priority tests and determine how to evaluate site conditions focused primarily on potential adverse site conditions included in NRC regulations but, after a year, DOE decided to use its own guidelines to judge site suitability; (5) in March 1991, DOE issued a report ranking broad issues to be studied, but decided to develop a new ranking method; (6) DOE has not obtained public comment on proposed approaches for establishing testing priorities and evaluating site suitability; (7) problems in obtaining the environmental permits necessary to conduct work at the Yucca Mountain site have prevented DOE in the last 4 years from conducting site activities necessary for site characterization; (8) DOE applied for three permits needed to resume investigations, but Nevada delayed acting on the applications due to pending litigation which was ultimately resolved in favor of DOE; and (9) since continuing difficulties in obtaining permits could significantly delay program completion, DOE has proposed legislation that takes away Nevada's permit-processing responsibility.


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