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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In its rush to abandon a politically toxic nuclear waste dump, the U.S. Energy Department may have wasted billions of dollars and set back efforts to house waste for decades, a new report said.
The study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, comes as nuclear plants face renewed pressure to deal with radioactive waste stored in pools -- waste that contributed to the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant when it overheated after an earthquake and tsunami in March cut its power.
The GAO study was requested by House Republican lawmakers who want to revive a plan, contentious for decades, to bury nuclear waste deep inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The Obama administration killed that plan shortly after taking office.
"Some of the officials we spoke with estimated that the termination of Yucca Mountain could set back the opening of a new geologic repository by at least 20 years and cost billions of dollars," said the GAO report.
"Prolonging on-site storage could also increase opposition to expansion of the nuclear industry," the report said.
An expert panel convened by the Energy Department is slated to consider ideas for long-term waste storage at a meeting on Friday, a day after the U.S. nuclear safety regulator gets its first briefing from a task force looking at what it should do in the wake of the Japan disaster.
"The ongoing situation in Japan further underscores that our national security demands a coherent nuclear policy to safely and permanently store spent nuclear fuel," said Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who released the report late on Monday.
The United States has almost 65,000 tones of spent nuclear fuel stored at 75 sites in 33 states, "enough to fill a football field nearly 15 feet deep," the GAO said.
The nation's 104 nuclear plants add to that pile with about 2,000 tones more spent fuel rods each year.
"With nowhere to move the spent nuclear fuel, the racks in the pools holding spent fuel have been rearranged to allow for more dense storage of assemblies," the GAO said, noting some pools are reaching capacity.
Some plants have begun storing the rods in "dry cask" systems, which add costs but are viewed as a longer-term fix.
The government has spent almost $15 billion assessing Yucca Mountain as a place to store waste in the ground since 1983, collecting $9.5 billion of that from electric bills.
The site was supposed to accept waste beginning in 1998, but was tied up by opposition from Nevada residents, and a series of costly lawsuits.
"DOE's decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons," the GAO said.
President Barack Obama made good on an election promise to shut down the site shortly after taking office, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu appointed a "Blue Ribbon Commission" of experts to come up with alternative ideas.
"There is no guarantee that a more acceptable or less costly alternative will be identified" by the panel, the GAO said, noting it will take more time and money to find new a new solution given that no states want to host a permanent dump.
In a 14-page letter refuting the GAO study, the Energy Department said it acted responsibly when it shut down the site to find "more workable alternatives."
The GAO report relies on several "misapprehensions of fact," said Peter Lyons, head of the DOE's nuclear energy program, noting that other options may be faster.
"There was considerable uncertainty whether the Yucca Mountain repository would ever have opened -- let alone when," Lyons said.
The GAO recommended the Energy Department find "more predictable funding" and independent management for future efforts to store nuclear waste.
Editing by Jonathan Thatcher