The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) manages high-level waste (HLW) at sites across the DOE complex. This HLW is the highly radioactive waste material produced as a byproduct of the reactions that occur inside nuclear reactors:
- Much of this HLW is spent (depleted) nuclear fuel, which has been accepted for disposal.
- Some HLW consists of other highly radioactive materials that are determined (consistent with existing law) to require permanent isolation.
- The remaining HLW comprises the liquid and solid waste byproducts (containing significant concentrations of fission products) that remain after spent fuel is reprocessed to extract isotopes that can be used again as reactor fuel. Although commercial reprocessing is currently not practiced in the United States, the defense reprocessing programs at certain facilities managed by DOE do produce significant quantities of HLW.
From time to time, DOE may determine that certain wastes resulting from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel can be managed as low-level waste (LLW) (i.e., waste incidental to reprocessing (WIR)), rather than managed as HLW. Such determinations by DOE, are carried out in accordance with DOE Order 435.1, "Radioactive Waste Management," and the associated "Radioactive Waste Management Manual." Regulatory authority regarding WIR usually resides with the State in which the WIR site resides or through other agreements to other federal agencies (e.g., the West Valley Demonstration Project Act for West Valley, the Hanford Tri-Party Agreement for Hanford).
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has a non-regulatory role in WIR as defined in Section 3116 of the Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005 (NDAA). The NDAA covers the DOE sites in Idaho and South Carolina (i.e., NDAA-Covered States). The NRC has two functions under the NDAA. Under NDAA Section 3116(a), the DOE must consult with the NRC prior to making the final waste determination. Under NDAA Section 3116(b), following the Secretary of Energy's final determination that the waste is WIR, the NRC monitors the DOE disposal actions in coordination with the NDAA-Covered State. The NRC and NDAA-Covered State assesses the DOE disposal actions to determine compliance with the performance objectives set forth in Subpart C of Title 10, Part 61, of the Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR Part 61, "Licensing Requirements for Land Disposal of Radioactive Waste." Also under NDAA Section 3116(b), if the NRC considers any disposal actions taken by the DOE under the NDAA to be not in compliance with those performance objectives, then the NRC must, as soon as practicable after discovery of the noncompliant conditions, inform the DOE, NDAA-Covered State, and specific committees in Congress.
For additional information on the role that NRC plays in the waste determination and disposal processes, see the following pages:
Page Last Reviewed/Updated Monday, June 28, 2021