In the United States, legislation enacted in 1980 assigned states responsibility for providing disposal capacity for low-level radioactive waste generated by commercial enterprises such as owners of nuclear power plants and related fuel cycle facilities. The law encourages states to form interstate agreements, known as compacts, to cooperatively provide disposal capacity for this waste. After 20 years and over one-half billion dollars in expenditures, however, no compact of states has developed a new disposal facility. Nevertheless, waste generators in all states currently have access to adequate disposal capacity.

Changing conditions in the next few years may determine whether policy makers maintain the current approach to low-level radioactive waste management or explore alternatives. One such condition is the impending restriction of access to a disposal facility at Barnwell, South Carolina, which is one of only three disposal facilities in the United States that accept commercial low-level radioactive waste. Of these facilities, only Barnwell is both available to waste generators in all states and licensed to accept all three of the principal categories of waste for which states must provide disposal. Access to this facility is to be phased out for most generators by mid-2008. Another important development is a proposed expansion of the radioactive materials license of one of the other two U.S. disposal facilities for commercial low-level radioactive waste. This facility is located in Utah and is owned and operated by Envirocare. The facility currently accepts only “class A” low-level radioactive waste — the least hazardous class in the U.S. classification system, but Envirocare is seeking a license that would allow it to accept all three classes of commercial low-level radioactive waste. If the company receives the requested authorization, its disposal facility could offset the future loss of access to the Barnwell facility and provide adequate disposal capacity for commercial waste for many years.

If Envirocare’s requested authorization is denied, dwindling disposal capacity may provide an impetus for a change in U.S. policy governing management of commercial low-level radioactive waste. Two alternative policy approaches analyzed by the U.S. General Accounting Office are 1) repeal of the existing state-compact legislation so that private industry could develop and operate disposal facilities in response to market conditions and 2) disposal of commercial low-level radioactive waste at sites operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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