In a new 80-page report, investigators said political pressure is a greater obstacle than science to projects such as Yucca Mountain, and warned that halting it -- after spending $15 billion -- could cause new delays in the decadeslong search for a permanent solution to a growing national stockpile of spent nuclear fuel.
"There is no guarantee that a more acceptable or less costly alternative will be identified," the report said, referring to the efforts of the Blue Ribbon Commission formed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu to develop other strategies for nuclear waste.
In fact, the report continued, "termination could instead restart a costly and time-consuming process to find and develop an alternative permanent solution. It would also likely prolong the need for interim storage of spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites, which would have financial and other impacts."
Currently, the nation's 104 operating power reactors create about 2,000 tons of the material each year, adding to 70,000 tons stored mostly at those power plants.
Much of that material is kept in concrete-lined pools, where water keeps the fuel rods cool. More secure, above-ground cask storage systems can also be built.
Even before spent fuel at Japan's doomed Fukushima reactor complex was feared to be overheating, concerns over the safety of spent fuel at U.S. facilities were being voiced.
In 2002, Congress approved Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the site of a national nuclear waste repository, but it was canceled under an Obama administration edict, spawning a series of lawsuits that remain unresolved.
GAO investigators consulted dozens of stakeholders across the U.S. -- including Southern Co., which operates Plant Vogtle in Georgia; and the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control, which helps regulate nuclear power plants and waste sites.
Most organizations interviewed identified two broad lessons for developing a future waste management strategy.
"First, social and political opposition to a permanent repository, not technical issues, is the key obstacle. Important tools for overcoming such opposition include transparency, economic incentives, and education. Second, it is important that a waste management strategy have consistent policy, funding, and leadership, especially since the process will likely take decades."
GAO recommended that the Secretary of Energy further explore the risks that terminating Yucca Mountain could pose for future radioactive materials management and also "develop a preliminary plan to restart the project, in case DOE is required to do so."
Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission mostly concurred with the study, Energy Department officials disagreed with many points.
In a 14-page response from Peter Lyons, the acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy, DOE countered that the GAO conclusions were based on mistaken assumptions that the Yucca Mountain repository would have opened in the first place, and, secondly, that any alternative would take longer to implement and increase spent fuel storage costs beyond what they would have been for Yucca Mountain.
"To the contrary, Lyons wrote, "there was considerable uncertainty whether the Yucca Mountain repository would ever have opened, let alone when. Among other things, the project would have required new legislation, an NRC license and many additional permits."
The department's Blue Ribbon Commission created to explore such alternatives, he noted, is due to issue a draft report in July, followed by final recommendations in early 2012.