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Nuclear Energy Waste

QUESTION: Nuclear Energy -- What About the Nuclear Waste?


“The Problem of Nuclear Waste” is a common misconception fueled by skeptics and opponents of nuclear energy. “What to do with Nuclear Waste?” is one of the biggest issues dogging the nuclear power industry. While long-term management of used fuel is a real issue, it’s helpful to get some perspective.

Currently, the U.S. generates about 20% of its electricity from 104 nuclear power reactors. These reactors have generated about 62,000 tons of used nuclear fuel. When people talk about nuclear waste, they are really referring to this used nuclear fuel.

Ounce-for-ounce, uranium is super-efficient. If one person exclusively used nuclear energy to provide for her electricity needs for her entire lifetime, she could fit all her used uranium fuel in a standard soda can.

If we want to account for the 62,000 tons of used fuel produced since the beginning of nuclear power plant operation in the U.S., what does that look like? In order to visualize the total volume, picture an area the size of a football field going up to about the height of the goal post bars. Yes, an 8-foot-high, rectangular structure the size of a football field could house all 62,000 tons of used fuel in the U.S.

Of course, this doesn’t mean “problem solved.” In fact, we do need a regulatory environment where the nuclear energy industry can implement their comprehensive containment and recycling plans. However, it does show us that the amount of used fuel is manageable and currently being stored in safe and stable ways – without incident – at nuclear plants and other secure locations around the country.

Nuclear Energy Waste - Is the Transportation of Spent Fuel Really Safe?
Since the 1960s, there have been more than 3,000 shipments of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste on U.S. roads, highways, and railways totaling more than 1.7 million miles. There have been nine accidents, four on highways and five on railways.

Because the shipping containers are so strong, there were no injuries, leaks, exposures or environmental damage. The typical high-integrity fuel shipping container can withstand a direct hit by a high-speed locomotive, an 80-mile-an-hour crash into an immovable concrete barrier, immersion in a 1,475-degree Fahrenheit fire, a direct hit by a projectile 30 times more powerful than an anti-tank weapon, and immersion in 600 feet of water.

Yes, contrary to some public perceptions, radioactive materials from nuclear power plants are strictly controlled, safely transported, and securely stored. No member of the public has ever been harmed by the handling, transporting, storing, or disposing of any radioactive material from any of the nation’s nuclear power plants. It’s also important to realize that there are many industrial waste products outside the nuclear energy industry that are much more toxic to humans and much more damaging to the environment each and every year.

Nuclear Energy Waste -- Recycling Spent Fuel
Used fuel assemblies from U.S. commercial nuclear reactors are energy-rich resources that contain 95% of their original potential energy. By recycling the used fuel to make new fuel -- as done successfully in several countries already -- the remaining energy can be put to great use as another round of fuel for existing nuclear reactors.

The big question -- If we can recycle the used fuel, why isn’t the U.S. nuclear industry doing this?

The current U.S. policy is to dispose of all used fuel permanently. Of course, this policy isn’t being supported and is a monumental waste of resources. Many technologies exist to recover and recycle different parts of the used fuel. The French have been successful in commercializing a process. They remove the uranium and plutonium and fabricate new fuel. Using this method, America's 62,000 tons of used fuel contains enough fuel to power every U.S. household for over 12 years -- with no new uranium required.

Other technologies show even more promise. Indeed, most of them, including the process used in France, were developed in the U.S. Some recycling technologies would leave almost no high-level waste at all and would lead to the recovery of an almost endless source of fuel. However, none of these processes has been successfully commercialized in the U.S., and they will take time to develop. Until the future of nuclear power policy in the U.S. becomes clearer, it will be impossible to know which technologies will be most appropriate to pursue in this market.

There are several technically and scientifically proven options for safely and securely managing used nuclear fuel, including combinations of interim storage, recycling, and permanent geologic storage. For years, managing used nuclear fuel has been a political sticking point for the advancement of nuclear energy in the U.S. Permanent geologic storage, such as a facility like Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is crucial to resolving the issue of spent nuclear fuel. However, a more practical and comprehensive approach would include a well-structured combination of interim storage, recycling, and geological storage.

Content created in association with the Nuclear Energy Policy Group at The Heritage Foundation, and ColdWater Media, Inc. Copyright 2011 – All Rights Reserved in the Original.

Facts derived from the Nuclear Energy Institute,, including specifically, “Myths and Facts about Nuclear Energy” (August 2010).

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