Policy Issues

Radioactive Waste Management

In the nuclear science and technology industry, waste comes from different activities. It arises from the use of radioisotopes in medicine, in research, and in agriculture; it arises as a byproduct of the generation of electricity through nuclear fuels, from the use of sources in manufacturing processes and more.
In the United States, radioactive waste is divided into two main types, classified according to their activity, their heat generation potential, and what they physically contain. These two main levels are low-level waste (LLW) and high-level waste, as outlined right. Other types of radioactive waste also include uranium mill tailings, waste incidental to reprocessing (WIR), and transuranic waste (TRU) .

Low-level waste represents about 90% of all radioactive waste in and has been disposed of in near surface facilities in the United States for decades. The disposal sites are in Washington, South Carolina, and Utah.

Spent Fuel Storage and Disposal

Solid fuel assemblies are usually irradiated in a reactor for about three years until they are taken out as spent or “used” fuel. These assemblies are highly radioactive and must be cooled in a spent fuel pool on-site of the reactor for at least five years. At that point, they can be placed into interim above-ground storage or disposed of in an underground repository. Most nuclear power plants in the United States safely store spent fuel in dry cask storage on-site or near the reactor site. These concrete casks are steel lined and protect people and the environment from the radiation from the spent fuel.

While some countries recycle their spent fuel to extract the usable nuclear material, most countries, including the United States, have the policy to dispose of spent fuel in a deep geological repository. However, there are no repositories currently operating and only two under construction in the world.

Because of the delay in siting a repository in the United States, the President appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in 2010 to evaluate different disposal options the future of the U.S. nuclear industry. Their recommendations include:

  1. A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities.
  2. A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed.
  3. Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear waste management.
  4. Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities.
  5. Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated storage facilities.2
  6. Prompt efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to consolidated storage and disposal facilities when such facilities become available.
  7. Support for continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development.
  8. Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation, and security concerns.

More Resources

Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982
The Energy Policy Act of 2005
Nuclear Regulatory Commission – Radioactive Waste
ANS Position Statements on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Management
U.S. Department of Energy – Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste

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