Managing Nuclear Waste

Jack Spencer / Paul Hultgren /

Few think of a calm pool of water when they think of nuclear waste. While nuclear waste must be handled with skill and care, the problems with managing America’s existing and future nuclear waste are political hurdles, not ones of technology or safety.

What is popularly termed nuclear waste is better understood as spent nuclear fuel. Spent nuclear fuel is uranium fuel that can no longer efficiently sustain fission, the process that produces the heat needed to generate electricity, and must be removed every 12 to 18 months. Though the toxicity, heat, and radioactivity of the spent fuel dissipate over time, it must be safely stored once it is removed from the reactor. Currently, nuclear power plants have no choice but to store the material onsite.

One storage method consists of storing the fuel in concrete and steel pools of circulating water to dissipate heat and radiation. These cooling pools were designed and built under the assumption that either the industry would be allowed to manage its own spent fuel or the Department of Energy (DOE) would collect spent fuel, as it is now required to by law. Because the DOE assumed responsibility for spent fuel management and disposal then reneged on that promise, the nuclear industry has had to develop safe alternative solutions.

First, it has expanded the capacity of cooling pools by re-racking—that is, bundling the oldest spent fuel rods in order to allow more spent fuel to be stored. Secondly, it developed a “dry” solution in which cooled radioactive spent nuclear fuel is enclosed within steel cylinders that are surrounded in additional concrete or steel, creating secure casks that are easy to store. This method can be used once spent fuel rods have cooled for at least one year under water, though the cooling period is commonly much longer than that.

Since 1982, the DOE has required nuclear power plants to pay a fee for the federal government to collect spent nuclear fuel in a permanent repository atYucca Mountain,Nevada. Currently, this amounts to roughly $750 million per year and is placed into the Nuclear Waste Fund, which currently holds approximately $30 billion.

Despite being legally required to collect spent fuel, having collected tens of billions of dollars, and spending $15 billion on the Yucca repository, the federal government has not collected a single atom of spent nuclear fuel. As a result, approximately 70,000 tons of commercial radioactive materials are being stored at nuclear power plants across America.

Meanwhile, utilities have successfully sued the federal government for not picking up the waste. To date, the Department of Justice has paid roughly $2 billion in liability claims, and these claims increase by $500 million or more annually. Making matters even worse, President Obama has attempted to terminate the Yucca Mountain spent fuel repository without any technical or scientific justification. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was all but finished with review of the permit to construct Yucca when the President decided to stop the program. Not only does this waste the $15 billion spent on the project, but because the President has yet to put forth an alternative plan, the nation is now left further away from a rational nuclear waste policy than it was 30 years ago.

Congress should force the NRC to complete its review of the YuccaMountainrepository permit. Then the nation needs to get the government as far from spent nuclear fuel management as it possibly can. The only role for the government should be regulation. The nuclear waste fee should be repealed, and nuclear plants should be responsible for their own spent fuel and have choices in management services. This would allow for the market to dictate the price of spent nuclear fuel management.

Learn more about nuclear spent fuel management and the important role it plays in the new video “Managing Nuclear Waste.” Heritage also explores the science behind nuclear energy and its role in the American energy landscape in the 40-minute film Powering America.