During the first 40 years that nuclear waste was being created in the United States, no legislation was enacted to manage its disposal. Nuclear waste, some of which remains radioactive with a half-life of more than one million years, was kept in various types of temporary storage. Of particular concern during nuclear waste disposal are two long-lived fission products, Tc-99 (half-life 220,000 years) and I-129 (half-life 17 million years), which dominate spent fuel radioactivity after a few thousand years. The most troublesome transuranic elements in spent fuel are Np-237 (half-life two million years) and Pu-239 (half-life 24,000 years).
Most existing nuclear waste came from production of nuclear weapons. About 77 million gallons of military nuclear waste in liquid form was stored in steel tanks, mostly in South Carolina, Washington, and Idaho. In the private sector, 82 nuclear plants operating in 1982 used uranium fuel to produce electricity. Highly radioactive spent fuel rods were stored in pools of water at reactor sites, but many utilities were running out of storage space.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 created a timetable and procedure for establishing a permanent, underground repository for high-level radioactive waste by the mid-1990s, and provided for some temporary federal storage of waste, including spent fuel from civilian nuclear reactors. State governments were authorized to veto a national government decision to place a waste repository within their borders, and the veto would stand unless both houses of Congress voted to override it. The Act also called for developing plans by 1985 to build monitored retrievable storage (MRS) facilities, where wastes could be kept for 50 to 100 years or more and then be removed for permanent disposal or for reprocessing.
Congress assigned responsibility to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to site, construct, operate, and close a repository for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was directed to set public health and safety standards for releases of radioactive materials from a repository, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was required to promulgate regulations governing construction, operation, and closure of a repository. Generators and owners of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste were required to pay the costs of disposal of such radioactive materials. The waste program, which was expected to cost billions of dollars, would be funded through a fee paid by electric utilities on nuclear-generated electricity. An Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management was established in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to implement the Act.