Background on Nuclear Waste Issues

Nuclear Waste storage is a multi-generational challenge

The waste that comes as a byproduct of our nuclear weapons complex and nuclear reactors will impact thousands of generations. We have no storage and disposition plan that can tackle a problem of that scope so we currently look at methods that will allow us to mitigate the risks and costs associated with this growing challenge.  The need for consent by those affected becomes essential to avoid the dumping of this hazardous waste on populations that are disempowered. In addition, we urgently need an interim waste management plan that will allow the Federal Government the time it needs to consider a more enduring solution.


Yucca Mountain poses risks beyond Nevada communities

When Nevada lacked clout in Congress, a plan was made for the nation’s nuclear waste to be shipped to a proposed centralized storage site in Yucca Mountain. Beyond geological concerns with the plan, local communities in Nevada near Yucca Mountain have protested the decision to move this waste into their backyard. Yucca Mountain also poses risks beyond Nevada communities. Because of its distance from the vast majority of nuclear waste in the country (which is mostly east of the Mississippi), the transportation routes for this hazardous material would impact a wide swath of the United States. While rail accidents are rare, low probability events occur over time and the risk posed from the transport of this material should concern many Americans.


Hardened Dry Cask Storage offers an interim solution

While the debate over waste management continues, nuclear waste is currently being stockpiled at a number of different sites and on-site at nuclear reactors. Left is an image of dry casks that, if hardened from attack, could offer a realistic interim solution that limits the movement of this hazardous material. While this will not eliminate the risk associated with nuclear waste, hardened on-site storage (HOSS) represents a practical solution that can be implemented far quicker and with less far-reaching problems as any proposed centralized waste facility would engender.

Read more about HOSS


Reprocessing is not a responsible waste management plan

Reprocessing refers to the chemical separation of fissionable uranium and plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel. The International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation  (IFNEC), formerly the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), aims to accelerate the development and deployment of advanced nuclear fuel cycle technologies while providing greater disincentives to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. GNEP was initiated by the USA early in 2006, but picked up on concerns and proposals from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Russia. The vision was for a global network of nuclear fuel cycle facilities all under IAEA control or at least supervision. (Source: World Nuclear Association)

Although the Department of Energy (DOE) has not provided a life-cycle cost estimate for GNEP, the National Academy of Sciences estimated in 1996 that a reprocessing project like GNEP could cost more than $500 billion. Additionally, the Congressional Budget Office has stated that “Reprocessing of U.S. spent fuel would cost 25 percent more than plans for direct disposal” in a permanent repository. Under the current plan for GNEP, the taxpayer and rate-payers, not the nuclear power industry, would bear this cost.

Reprocessing has already failed in the United States: West Valley, New York is the site of the only commercial reprocessing plant that operated in the United States. From 1966 to 1972, West Valley ran at 18% capacity and accumulated 600,000 gallons of high-level waste onsite. The cleanup of West Valley will cost more than $5 billion.

France has demonstrated that reprocessing does not solve the nuclear waste problem. According to the recent report Spent Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing in France, issued by the International Panel on Fissile Material, “there is no clear advantage for the reprocessing option either in terms of waste volumes or repository area.” French reprocessing has left large quantities of solid waste contaminated with plutonium that will need to be stored in a repository.

Separating plutonium under GNEP would increase the production and stockpiles of nuclear weapons usable materials. Spent fuel that has not been reprocessed is considered “self protecting” because it is highly radioactive. Separated plutonium is a fine powder, and approximately 18 lbs. are required to make a bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency already allows for a 3% margin of error in accounting for plutonium in existing reprocessing facilities. All of this increases the risk that material could be lost or diverted by terrorists. In addition, since the announcement of GNEP, several countries that do not currently reprocess spent fuel or enrich uranium have expressed interest in developing the dangerous technologies, and could thereby acquire the ability to produce nuclear weapons-usable material for nuclear weapons.

RELATED POSTS & RESOURCES

New Beyond Nuclear fact sheets opposing Consolidated Interim Storage Facilities

New Beyond Nuclear fact sheets opposing Consolidated Interim Storage Facilities:

Maximizing Health and Environmental Protection: Permanent Geologic Disposal versus Surface Storage of Nuclear Waste;

Licensing Now Underway for Two Unlawful Consolidated ‘Interim’ Storage Nuclear Waste Facilities: New Mexico and Texas/What Measures Are Needed for Reasonably Safe Interim Storage at Reactor Sites Pending Repository Siting and Licensing?;

Packaging and Transporting Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste: Adding Unnecessary Costs and Risks/Transportation Detour;

The Challenge of Effectively Isolating Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste/Stalled on the Road to a Repository;

Why is Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste Dangerous?/The Nuclear Waste Policy Act: Bedrock Principles for the Protection of Future Generations from the Dangers of Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste;

How Can the U.S. Achieve Success on the Road to a Repository?/Federal and State Officials Are Refusing to Take the Dangerous Dead-End Detour to Consolidated “Interim” Nuclear Waste Storage;

Consolidated “Interim” Storage of Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste: A Dangerous and Inequitable Dead-End Detour Away from a Repository;

ConsentBased Repository Siting: A Necessary and Viable Path to Permanent Disposal of Nuclear Waste/Federal and State Officials Are Refusing to Take the Dangerous Dead-End Detour to Consolidated “Interim” Storage.


The intended audience for the fact sheets are Members of Congress and their staff, as well as other officials at all levels of government — federal, state, county, local, and Indigenous. (Please feel free to use the fact sheets as hand outs in your meetings with officials, whether face-to-face and hardcopy, or Zooms and links to PDFs!) But the fact sheets can also serve as important educational tools for citizens and activists concerned about highly radioactive waste, the general public, as well as the news media.

The author of the fact sheets is Beyond Nuclear’s radioactive waste specialist, Kevin Kamps. Legal support for the fact sheets was provided by Diane Curran of Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg, L.L.P.

Beyond Nuclear would also like to thank numerous respected colleagues who provided peer review on these fact sheets. However, Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear remains responsible for any errors of commission or omission.