Liability issues are a major concern for final disposal of radioactive waste (RW) and for geological storage of carbon dioxide (CO2). We develop a list of overarching questions that drive liability and present a discussion of where managing liability for geological CO2 storage and RW disposal is fundamentally different and where it is similar. Governments have been trying to manage high-level RW from civilian reactors for over 40 years and there are ample lessons in the interplay between technology, policy, politics and society that are relevant for both future nuclear energy and geological CO2 storage projects. We examine the history of managing liability for RW using case studies on Germany, France, Finland and the USA to better understand how liability for RW is currently structured. We compare this to potential liabilities for geological CO2 storage and outline current proposals for managing liability in the US and European Union. From this, we develop ‘lessons learned’ from past management of RW that could help to both structure liability and ultimately deploy future RW and geological CO2 storage projects. We conclude that while establishment of a legal framework is important for future development of nuclear energy and geological CO2 storage, it is insufficient to guarantee deployment. Rather, legal liability is embedded within a larger socio-political context and addressing these broader concerns is vital for future RW disposal and geological CO2 storage deployment.