by Madeleine Jennewein
figures by Rebecca Senft

Across the United States, nuclear waste is accumulating in poorly maintained piles. 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste requiring disposal are currently in temporary storage. The United States, however, has yet to construct a long-term storage solution for this waste, leaving the nuclear material vulnerable to extreme weather events such as hurricanes, rising sea levels, and wildfire.

Nuclear power will be an essential tool in climate change adaptation because it’s capable of producing massive amounts of energy without any carbon emissions. In fact, although nuclear power is expensive to build, the scale and potential of nuclear power represents the most efficient path to eliminate carbon emissions from energy production. The drawback? Nuclear waste. Dangerous for thousands of years, nuclear waste requires long-term solutions that shield it from living things, but the public pressure to build effective storage solutions just isn’t there.

What is high-level nuclear waste?

Nuclear waste is primarily a byproduct of nuclear energy generation (Figure 1). Nuclear energy harnesses the intense heat released from nuclear fission, where unstable atoms (either uranium or plutonium) are split into smaller elements. This heat turns water into steam, which spins turbines to generate electric power. However, the radioactive byproducts of nuclear energy generation are incredibly damaging to living things because nuclear decay also releases smaller particles—protons, neutrons and electrons—that can tear through tissue and damage genetic material, leading to cancers and birth defects.

Figure 1: Lifecycle of nuclear waste. Radioactive elements (1) encased in fuel rods are split into smaller elements (2) by high-energy reactions. These reactions release energy as heat (3) and also generate free particles. In a nuclear reactor, this heat converts water to steam, which turns turbines to generate electricity (4). At the end of its cycle, the nuclear fuel rods are cooled in pools of water for several years (5), and then may be disposed in dry cask storage (6).

Because of these adverse effects, nuclear waste must be treated carefully. Low-level waste (such as tools that have been contaminated with radiation) typically emits very low levels of radiation that are typically on par with the radiation we absorb daily from the sun. High-level waste, however, including spent nuclear fuel and its byproducts, is searing hot and requires years of cooling plus thick metal shielding to prevent radioactivity release. Even after 10 years of decay, this waste could emit 100 times a fatal dose of radiation in one hour.

How can nuclear waste be stored?

Nuclear waste storage facilities need to be designed to protect the waste from theft, shield it from emitting radioactivity, prevent it from leaking into water or soil, insulate it from release by natural disaster, and hide it from future generations that may not understand its danger. The main risk of nuclear waste is water running through the sealed storage containers (dry casks) and carrying nuclear particles out of storage. With this in mind, the two primary options for storage are protected sites above ground and geological repositories underground (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Nuclear fuel storage options. The disposal of nuclear fuel can take many forms (either at or near the Earth’s surface or in geological repositories), each of which has varying drawbacks and benefits.

Commercial energy generation produces the majority of nuclear waste in the U.S., which remains stored above ground near each of the 99 commercial nuclear reactors scattered around the country. Nuclear waste is stored in pools to cool for many years, and some is moved to above-ground concrete casks. However, these storage solutions are temporary at best. This form of storage requires personnel to maintain the sites of disposal, to monitor leakage, and to check the temperature and radioactivity of waste. Because nuclear waste could be repurposed for weapons, these pools and casks require a security presence to prevent theft. Above-ground casks are also vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes, flooding, and hurricanes that could overwhelm the storage sites. While nuclear waste disposal sites are designed to safely store waste for several years, they haven’t been built to a standard that would allow the waste to sit there for centuries without constant upkeep.

Longer-term storage might be possible underground. Within geological repositories, the choice is between storage that is retrievable by future generations (geological disposition) or a sealed site that can’t be reopened (geological disposal). Decisions about which path to take need to contend with many questions: Can we confidently commit societal resources to manage this waste for the future? Can we scientifically minimize the chances of the waste escaping? Can we ensure social and political support for the project?

Geological disposal greatly diminishes many of the risks of nuclear waste, securely placing the waste underground, away from water sources, hurricanes, and humans. If located in an arid or frozen area isolated from earthquakes, a geological repository would be virtually impenetrable, and would effectively shield radioactive material. Thus, permanent geological disposal is the main goal of most countries. Many countries, with the U.S., Sweden, and Finland leading the effort, have begun the arduous process of selecting a site that meets intense scientific and logistical standards. Scientific research ensures that whichever site is selected will protect humans and isolate waste. Given the 24,000-year half-life of plutonium, scientists aim to design containment mechanisms and choose sites that will remain safe and isolated for 100,000 years.

Yucca Mountain

For the past 40 years, Yucca Mountain, in an arid desert 100 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada, was on track to become the main site for storing the U.S.’s accumulated nuclear waste (Figure 3). The area has little precipitation, so little water would seep into the mountain. The extremely dense volcanic rock of the mountain has small pores, preventing any water leakage through the rock. In addition, waste would be stored far above water sources in the mountain. These features would effectively shield the waste and prevent the release of radioactivity.

Figure 3: Timeline of nuclear waste storage in the United States.

In 1987, Congress directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain. Funded by a tax on nuclear power companies, researchers vetted the site and designed a storage plan for the mountain. In 2002, the DOE concluded that Yucca Mountain was suitable, and in 2008 they submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent agency tasked with protecting safety related to nuclear energy, to begin the construction process.

Many Nevadans felt that the DOE did not solicit their input in the process and that having a nuclear waste repository so close by would be dangerous. In 2010, pressured by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and the Obama administration, the DOE withdrew its application. In turn, Congress withdrew funding, grinding the process to a halt. Still, the resulting legislation allowed the audit review to go forward, and the NRC reported in 2015 that Yucca Mountain satisfies nearly all of the regulatory requirements.

Why is it so hard to store nuclear waste safely?

The science and policy issues of nuclear waste demonstrate the need for science-informed policy but also show the limits of dictating policy through scientific assessment alone. Nuclear waste storage is a societal challenge. There is intense opposition in almost every community near a potential waste site. From decades of secrecy, bureaucracy, and top-down decision making, Americans distrust those who control nuclear waste decisions. In the absence of community engagement, Americans don’t recognize the acute need for nuclear waste storage, and perceive such storage as fallible and dangerous.

However, there is a way forward. While the U.S. fought over Yucca Mountain, Finland has quietly selected, licensed, and begun construction on a nuclear waste disposal facility. Key to Finland’s success was active community involvement in site selection. Indeed, Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission to study waste disposal in the U.S. concluded that nuclear waste disposal could only be successful with active community involvement. The commission advocated starting a new process of site selection, with community engagement at all stages.

While many fear nuclear waste facilities in their communities, it is not necessarily anathema to all. Nuclear waste storage facilities would guarantee a steady stream of jobs and money for the community. For example, the WIPP site, a repository for lower-level radioactive waste from defense sources maintains much community support because the site provides jobs and actively engages the community, promoting itself as vital to national defense.

Where do we go from here?

While nuclear power constitutes around 20% of the power sources in the United States, and could be critical to climate change adaptation, six states currently prohibit nuclear plant construction until a nuclear waste storage facility is built. Waste storage is the essential piece of the puzzle.

As of May 2018, the House of Representatives voted to restart the Yucca Mountain process. The Trump administration has been sympathetic to reopening Yucca Mountain, asking for $150 million, but was ultimately denied. It’s unclear whether a nuclear waste repository will be built in the near future, but it’s increasingly clear how necessary and how difficult the process will be.

Madeleine Jennewein is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Virology program at Harvard University.

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33 thoughts on “Looking for a Trash Can: Nuclear waste management in the United States

  1. The answer is to use spent nuclear fuel in fast reactors to produce energy. Only 300 years to store the ashes, 100% clean baseboard energy (no mining required), 30 times the energy of the original fuel, and the public loves the idea. This is what the US will end up doing, and the rest of the world will follow. It is the best, most efficient solution, which is why it is taking so long.

  2. Welcome to 2022. We are sharing a pandemic. Hopefully coming to its end, soon. This gives all time to reflect, the planet time to rest, and much can be achieved. So, what else is new? The latest on the nuclear waste disposal discussion continues in my country, Australia. After 40 years or more of uranium mining and export, and about 6 years to locate a site for nuclear waste disposal, a volunteered farming land between other farms has been formerly selected, the criteria, and declared in late 2021, as the solution and site for nuclear waste disposal, facility or dump. This site will house and dispose low level nuclear waste, and temporarily store intermediate nuclear waste, for unknown years. Making this latter waste, someone else’s problem tomorrow. Thus, two sites will be required, eventually. In 300 years? My question: Where? When? One would want to know, NOW.
    The winning site or former farm, ‘Napandee’ is within the rural township of Kimba, South Australia, Australia for those with interest in this topic, or researching solutions, debate and approaches worldwide. This will be a new industry for the town. Some indigenous people are unhappy of the inadequate discussion. Many still say, no.
    I believe nuclear waste disposal requires a solution within mining projects and their approval, rather than looking for a scientific approach. These approaches may serve best for new forms of energy, or solutions to replace former problems with outdated methods.
    I am an illustrator for reproduction. This has included mining. I stand by my own opinion as an intuitive solution. No new uranium mine should be approved anywhere without within its design, capacity to store for disposal, nuclear waste, as a cradle to grave project. If this had been the approach in the past, we may not be having the where shall we place our nuclear waste discussion. 40 years ago, nuclear waste, would be someone else’s problem tomorrow. The World Nuclear Association best practice is deep geological disposal. These mines have short lives, leaving a large hole or void, that could be rehabilitated, often in remote zones. This would be as a duty of care from uranium miners, who at present offer no input into the nuclear waste legacy disposal, discussion, as a model. Place nuclear waste back into these cradles. Why destroy more new environment elsewhere, when we are asked to rescue it? What other solutions are there? On research: Boreholes, shooting it to the sun or space, dropping it into volcanoes, recycling, storage, farming land. Please add.

  3. Plasma

  4. There is no way going forward that this highly toxic nuclear waste should be buried for eternity beneath the prime farmland of the Teeswater Ontario area .
    As a whole the highly responsible farmers of the Teeswater area have not asked for this particular proposed solution .
    Local politicians at this proposed location seem to be blinded by the monies being dangled by the proponents.
    As for the present area farmer landowners in Teeswater area affected they don’t seem to be a willing host !
    Their concerns regarding future problematic issues seem to be quite justified .
    Yours very truly
    Robert Emerson.

  5. NUCLEAR WASTE disposal unless recycled, from 2021
    – as a customer, return, cradle to grave, service! Bury it in the hole of where it came. A uranium mine. This no ordinary ingredient. Why should others have to do the dirty work? Whilst uranium miners stay silent, without any input into this discussion, having sold the initial ingredient.
    As I write, our world is gripped, by a Covid 19 pandemic. Its scientists, citizens, Governments and others are still urgently looking for ideas and sites to place their ever increasing, nuclear waste.
    Another option is that they pay for nuclear waste facilities and disposal, having benefitted from the sale of uranium ore.
    It may be timely to BAN uranium export and mining, until they put up their hand to take responsibility for the ore they export. If this were any other ingredient, it would be withdrawn from the market. Yes we do need it for medical purposes, but some trash is left, with no disposal method or solution in place. And there has been more than 40 years to do so.
    Uranium mines, have short lives. Leaving a substantial void, ‘hole’.
    Place nuclear waste in it progressively, or at end of the mine’s life of 20-30 years. This will ensure the site is rehabilitated at customer wishing nuclear waste disposal. The transport infrastructure and township is already there. No new environment or farm (as in my country Australia – and its criteria, having allowed no other options).
    One can argue, that the uranium has gone back into the cradle of where it came. Why dig more holes, why destroy more environment? Why build expensive monuments to it? Why place it back between citizens, in ‘reverse uranium mines’? Dispose of it! Why look for sites, rather than solutions?
    There is no easy way to say this.
    The overlooked, intuitive answer to the world’s nuclear waste, whilst some may be recycled, is staring one,
    IN THE uranium mine.

  6. Hi Madeleine, thanks for putting this together. Nuclear waste management is a critical topic not only in the United States but most parts of the world.

  7. It is an insidious instinct in humanity that we must ‘play’ with things that have an inherent ability to kill us.
    We were paid to look for the stuff for the directors of companies who profited from successful exploration, the scientists who had to investigate the depth of use … I need go no further to illustrate the persons involved.
    We should have just left this dangerous, life-threatening element in the ground UNTIL we were sure we could deal with the radioactive spectra and contain the unsafe extensions of its use. We still should, as of now, cease the mining until the issue surrounding this element is resolved.

    1. It IS resolved that’s the whole point and has been for a long time. It’s the politics and misinformation that is not resolved, but in fairness political trust is so low I can understand why. So we need qualified experts explaining this to people not unqualified bloggers and politicians.

      It also doesn’t help that articles like this always seem to choose the most sensational imagery and language. No one just leaves barrels of glowing green goo around the landscape. And the longer the half life the less toxic. While mercury, arsenic etc are toxic FOREVER. The figures we hear at a measure of the insanely high safety and quality standards not risk and harm. While people happily turf mercury containing light bulbs in to the trash Nd landfill to be toxic for the next fifty billion years.

      Go figure.

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