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Three trucks transport nuclear waste from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. | Energy Department photo.

Three trucks transport nuclear waste from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. | Energy Department photo.

Thirty years ago, our world looked very different. The Berlin Wall still divided Germany. The United States was still embroiled in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union.

In 1985, a decision was made to “co-mingle” defense waste from weapons production and civilian nuclear waste from energy production -- to dispose of them in one and the same repository. Back then, it was assumed that the production of new nuclear weapons would continue indefinitely, so a combined repository seemed natural. It was also assumed that more than one repository would be needed and available for this combined inventory, the first in 1998 and a second soon thereafter. 

However, history has taken a different course and proven these assumptions false.

Under the New START Treaty, the Energy Department is reducing, not expanding, our number of deployed strategic warheads to the lowest level since the 1950s. It has been 22 years since the last live U.S. nuclear test. And because of the Department’s Stockpile Stewardship Program, we understand more about how nuclear weapons work now than during the period of active nuclear testing. Meanwhile, the path to a common repository has been significantly more controversial, costly, and delayed than was anticipated in 1985. Since that time, we have also seen several nations make significant progress toward siting nuclear waste facilities using a phased, adaptive, and consent-based approach. 

Today, President Obama authorized the Energy Department to move forward with planning for a separate repository for high-level radioactive waste resulting from atomic energy defense activities. In remarks today before the Bipartisan Policy Center, Secretary Moniz discussed this path forward and also made clear that the Department will undertake a consent-based approach to siting storage and disposal facilities, as called for in the Administration’s 2013 “Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste,” and building upon the work of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.   

Today’s announcement reflects important considerations. Among other things, as the United States is no longer generating defense high-level waste associated with weapons production, today the inventory and composition of defense high-level waste is finite, which creates opportunities to look at separate disposal pathways for some waste streams. In addition, some defense waste is less radioactive, cooler, and easier to handle than commercial waste, which means a simpler design and potentially fewer licensing and transportation challenges for a defense repository. Separate disposal of defense high-level waste could allow greater flexibility in site selection -- and that could help keep costs down.

To be clear, moving forward with planning for a separate repository for defense waste does not mean that the Administration will put on hold efforts to find a solution for storage and disposal of commercial nuclear waste. Secretary Moniz also announced today that the Energy Department will start with one or more interim storage facilities that could accept spent fuel from shut down commercial reactors.

Looking ahead, we plan to take steps toward the siting and licensing of a larger interim storage facility -- all using a process consistent with the phased, adaptive, consent-based approach recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission, incorporated in the Administration’s Strategy, and contemplated by bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate.

In order to ensure the long-term viability of the nuclear industry, we must solve the issue of nuclear waste disposal and we must do it in a way that will ensure public trust and confidence in decision-making throughout the process. Today’s announcements are an important step forward.

To learn more about today’s announcements check out the Office of Nuclear Energy’s Fact Sheet.