Up & Atom


The House Subcommittee on Energy, Climate, and Grid Security held a hearing on April 10, 2024 to examine federal responsibility for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel (SNF), along with opportunities for mitigating disposal challenges—such as through reprocessing and recycling fuel—to advance nuclear energy for the nation.

The US government is currently statutorily and contractually obligated to take high-level radioactive waste and SNF generated by the commercial power industry. However, the United States has yet to build a permanent repository, meaning that nuclear plant operators must store their SNF on site. Absent congressional action, not only must the United States reimburse nuclear power companies for their storage costs for the indefinite future, but the status quo generates uncertainty for further commercial nuclear reactor development.


SNF storage has cost US taxpayers an estimated $10.6 billion to date, with indefinite future liability. That liability arises from contracts executed by the US Department of Energy (DOE) with the operators of nuclear power plants pursuant to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA). These contracts oblige DOE to take and permanently dispose of SNF generated by the commercial power industry beginning in 1998, but DOE has yet to commence performance and no permanent repository exists.

The United States formally designated Yucca Mountain in Nye County, Nevada as the site of the permanent SNF repository, but US Congress has stopped funding for the project. As a consequence, nuclear power plant operators have been required to build temporary on-site storage facilities to store approximately 94,000 tons of SNF and have successfully sued the government for partial breach of contract, allowing them to recover their actual storage costs on a periodic basis. SNF remains at decommissioned nuclear plants and continues to be generated at operating plants, creating new annual storage costs that are eventually passed to the DOE via recurring litigation or settlement claims.

Subcommittee on Energy, Climate, and Grid Security’s SNF Hearing

The subcommittee’s April 10 hearing examined the following:

  • How to durably implement the NWPA
  • How to protect the interests of ratepayers and US taxpayers
  • How the potential for future nuclear power plants affects SNF management and disposal
  • How innovations in nuclear technology affect SNF disposal

There was general agreement from those who voiced opinions during the hearing that a comprehensive SNF management solution is long overdue and that the lack of a solution imposes unnecessarily high costs on taxpayers. There was also general agreement that the challenge of SNF management and disposal is not a technical one, but rather is one of public policy.

The subcommittee also examined reprocessing SNF, a process by which SNF could be recycled into useable fuel for either existing reactors or proposed new reactors. Although several other countries and certain US government facilities reprocess fuel, the United States has not developed a commercial reprocessing industry.

Although not prohibited by statute, the ability for a presidential administration to limit or ban commercial reprocessing creates significant uncertainty for private investors. The NWPA, which focuses on permanent disposal of SNF, does not account for reprocessing. A potential solution for this issue would be for Congress to explicitly allow SNF reprocessing and incorporate it into an amendment to the NWPA, removing the legal uncertainty for private investors.

Subcommittee witnesses consisted of the following:

  • The Director of the Idaho National Laboratory, which conducts nuclear research and limited SNF reprocessing
  • The former Deputy Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, the office responsible for managing commercial SNF and repository licensing
  • The Chair of the Community Engagement Panel for the now-decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which currently stores SNF on-site), and
  • The Executive Director of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, an organization that represents state public service commissions

Subcommittee witnesses expressed support for restarting the Yucca Mountain project, transferring responsibility for licensing a permanent repository from the DOE to a single-purpose public service company, and providing greater legislative support for SNF reprocessing.

Whether funding construction of Yucca Mountain, amending existing law to authorize alternate permanent or interim storage facilities, or authorizing SNF reprocessing, a durable solution would require congressional action.

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