The barriers to nuclear waste disposal in the United States are primarily political rather than technical.
The United States currently has more than 90,000 tons of nuclear waste located across 35 states. The majority of this waste, almost 80,000 metric tons, comes from commercial nuclear power generation, while most of the remaining portion comes from the nuclear weapons program.
This nuclear waste is stored at 80 different sites, 59 of which are operational nuclear power plants. The United States produces more nuclear energy than any other nation, 32 percent of world production in 2017, the next largest producer, France, was responsible for 15 percent that year. Because of its lion’s share of production, the United States also bears a significant portion of the waste, and must reckon with how to safely dispose of it. According to the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), the “DOE [Department of Energy] reported at the end of fiscal year 2016 that the federal government has paid industry about 6.1 billion in damages and has projected future liabilities at about $24.7 billion. Each year of delay adds about $500 million to federal liabilities.” Inaction on this issue will only continue to increase this financial liability.
The United States currently has no permanent storage solution for this waste. Both commercial spent nuclear fuel (SNF) which is produced as a by-product of the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors, and high-level wastes (HLW) that are generated through the reprocessing of fuels for defense purposes, are stored temporarily because they cannot be legally repossessed at scale in the United States, and political disputes have prevented the construction of Yucca Mountain, the final repository designated by a 1987 amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.
Yucca Mountain, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, was intended to serve as the United States’ permanent geologic repository, an underground storage site for nuclear waste. Waste would be packed into transportation casks at interim storage sites around the country and shipped by rail and truck to the Nevada site. It would then be packaged and placed into carved out underground emplacement drifts—horizontal tunnels located at least 200 meters below the surface and 300 meters above the water table— where it would remain in storage in the 42-mile network of tunnels. There would be enough space in this repository to accommodate 11,000 of these waste packages with minimal radiation escaping to nearby areas. The rules established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and approved by the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) for the project require that it be able to prevent people in the immediate vicinity of the mountain from receiving more than a 15-millirem dose of radiation from the waste stored there for the first 10,000 years, and more than a 100-millirem dose from that point until 1 million years. To put this in context, Americans on average receive 620 millirems of radiation a year as normal background exposure. These strict construction requirements would ensure that the waste is stored for the portion of the decay process during which it is most radioactive.
But, the project has been stymied by decades of bureaucracy, political battles, and public fear. Just as progress on the project begins, it encounters another roadblock. The Yucca Mountain project looked dead during the Obama administration, especially because of strong opposition from Senate Majority leader and Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid. But, since 2017 the Trump administration has been working to revive the project. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is pushing to start it back up, and President Trump requested $116 million for the project in the fiscal year 2020 budget. The funds that he requested would have been used “to seek an NRC license for the project and develop interim waste storage capacity.” The House did not approve the funding request, but provided $25 million for interim storage activities. It is unclear at present whether or not the project will regain traction.
Nuclear waste isn’t a uniquely American issue; no country has a permanent geologic repository for nuclear waste. But some other countries are far better at managing it, reprocessing spent fuels in order to extract as much fissile material as possible while reducing the amount of waste that must be stored and its radioactivity dramatically.
In France, for example, 34,000 metric tons of spent fuel has been processed at the Orano la Hague treatment plant, which has been operational since 1966. The French procedure for fuel reprocessing involves several steps. The spent fuel is packed in steel casks and shipped to the Orano la Hague site. It is then submerged in a pool under nine meters of water for five years. After that it is moved to a second pool, where it is submerged in a nitric acid solution. Recyclable material is then separated from non-recyclable material. After this point in the process 96 percent of the remaining material is uranium and plutonium that can be recycled and 4 percent is final waste. The uranium is processed into uranyl nitrate and the plutonium becomes plutonium oxide. The uranyl oxide is held as a strategic reserve until it is re-enriched and used again, and the plutonium is combined with uranium to produce mixed oxides of uranium and plutonium (MOX) which can be used as commercial reactor fuel. This reduces the amount of uranium required for the fuel by 25 percent. The waste is then stored on site in casks that can keep it stable for tens of thousands of years. If the waste is from other countries reprocessed fuels, it is packed into casks and sent back to the country of origin for storage. France is not alone in reprocessing; the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, and India all have operational commercial facilities to reprocess spent fuel. There is no commercial reprocessing done in the United States.
There are several reasons that reprocessing spent fuel can be beneficial. It not only allows between 25 and 30 percent more energy to be generated from the same fissile inputs, but also produces only about one-fifth as much high-level waste as an open loop system that does not reprocess spent fuel. The remaining material is also less radioactive than fuel that is not reprocessed, making safe storage of this material less challenging. So, although no country yet has a final geologic repository (although some are at various stages of development including the Cigéo repository in France) the problem created by waste varies depending on whether or not reprocessing occurs in a country, and with the amount of power (and waste) being produced in a country.
Why, then, is commercial fuel reprocessing not allowed in the United States? On April 7th, 1977, President Jimmy Carter gave a speech in which he announced that “…we will defer indefinitely the commercial reprocessing and recycling of the plutonium produced in the U.S. nuclear power programs. From our own experience, we have concluded that a viable and economic nuclear power program can be sustained without such reprocessing and recycling.” There has been no commercial scale reprocessing effort in the United States since. Plutonium produced by reprocessing could also be used for weapons purposes were it to fall into the wrong hands before it was processed into MOX fuel. Because of proliferation concerns, the United States stopped attempting to reprocess spent fuel, and began to allow waste to accumulate, awaiting the construction of a long-term repository.
The problem of nuclear waste accumulation is a growing one in the United States. The political quarrels that inevitably accompany it as states and localities fight to move waste elsewhere or avoid it coming to them in the first place will only worsen as waste accumulates. The clearest path toward ameliorating the problem in the short term is to work toward allowing for reprocessing as is done in France. This could both provide additional fuel for power production, and reduce the radioactivity and volume of waste that must be dealt with. Squabbles about the specifics of a long-term repository will take time to be resolved, and as the fraught discussion over Yucca’s feasibility wears on, more waste continues to accumulate.
The waste is not only a problem because of its radioactivity, but also because of the costs that it generates. Because of the failure of the federal government to meet its obligations for waste disposal as established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, taxpayers are on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars per year for the costs of interim storage incurred by sites around the country. So, although construction of Yucca Mountain will be costly, the alternative of continuing to kick the can down the road is even more so, and a resolution should be sought as quickly as possible. The current administration’s position on the issue so far appears promising, and hopefully it will continue to work toward a long term solution.
Allowing reprocessing of spent fuel in the meantime could help to mitigate the impacts of the problem as there will be less waste in want of disposal, and therefore less cost to continued temporary storage of waste at sites across the country.