Points of View: How Should Nuclear Waste Be Stored?

Yucca Mountain was selected by Congress to be the location for the first U.S. permanent storage site for waste produced by nuclear power plants. Following protests by Nevada residents and environmental activists, these plans were dropped in 2010.

Nuclear fuel is used to generate electricity at power plants. When nuclear fuel rods can no longer serve this function, they are classified as high level radioactive waste. High-level radioactive waste includes solids, liquids, and gases containing a high concentration of radioactive isotopes that take approximately 100,000 years to decay. While nuclear energy is clean energy that can easily provide power for large cities without producing any air pollution, nuclear waste poses a major disposal problem.

Forever Storage
One option for disposing of nuclear waste is to take what scientists call a geologic approach, storing the waste in an underground location, protected by mountain bedrock or desert salt flats, that is not prone to earthquakes and does not have water flowing through it.

Finland expects to complete such a facility in 2020. It is called Onkalo, which means “hidden.” Onkalo consists of spiraling steel and concrete tunnels bored into a mountain of bedrock. Spent fuel rods will be stored in copper canisters deposited in beds of bentonite clay. Once Onkalo is full, sometime in the 2100s, Finland plans to backfill it. “It was important that we found a solution,” says Timo Seppala, who works for the contractor constructing the site, “that would require no surveillance or management by future generations.” Sweden is planning a similar facility, expected to be operational in 2020.

In 1987, Congress chose Yucca Mountain to be the location for the first U.S. permanent storage site for waste produced by nuclear power plants. But Nevadans and activists lobbied hard to stop the project. Opponents argued that in 100,000 years, climate changes might increase precipitation in the area. Then Yucca Mountain’s underground water table might rise high enough to come into contact with the stored nuclear waste—and wash radioactive particles into the water supply. Although the waste is sealed in waterproof canisters, activists point out that no canister can be expected to last for 100,000 years. Current technology can only provide canisters to last for 500 to 1,000 years. In 2010, President Barack Obama directed the U.S. Department of Energy to drop its plans for the site.

nuclear waste

Rows of metal drums store nuclear waste from Rhode Island in a facility near Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Temporary Storage
Meanwhile, U.S. nuclear waste is being held on site at the nuclear power plants that produced it. More than 65,000 tons of nuclear waste is being held at about 75 different nuclear reactors around the country (some of these reactors have since been shut down, but they continue to be staffed for the sake of protecting the waste that is stored there). Used nuclear fuel rods are stored in canisters that are held in pools of water, for cooling, or in solid concrete casks. Many of these storage sites, though, have been used for so many decades that they are approaching their maximum capacity.

Recycling Nuclear Waste
“Spent” nuclear fuel is made up of about 95.6 percent unused uranium. It is possible to reprocess nuclear waste, remove the unused uranium, and use it for fuel. Doing so greatly reduces the amount of nuclear waste that is produced by nuclear power plants. In fact, France has recycled its nuclear waste since the very first years of its nuclear industry. In France, producing enough electricity to provide power to a family of four for 20 years produces a quantity of nuclear waste about the size of a pack of gum.

However, reprocessing nuclear waste means separating uranium from plutonium. Plutonium is left over as a byproduct of nuclear recycling. Since plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons, recycling nuclear waste has proven to be politically controversial in some countries, including the U.S.

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