Finding a Solution to America’s Nuclear Waste Problem

Nuclear waste is a problem that’s here to stay and, if the radioactive isotope plutonium-239 is present, that means at least 24,000 years. We know how to manage it safely, but figuring out where to store it long term poses a substantial political test. Since President Obama’s January 2010 decision to withdraw the license application for Yucca Mountain, the challenge has become even more critical, especially as nuclear reactors continue to retire and spent fuel stored on-site is left without the appropriate fuel-handling infrastructure.

The current inventory of spent nuclear fuel includes waste from both the commercial nuclear industry as well as from defense-related activities. On the commercial side, there are 100 operating reactors in the United States, each of which uses approximately 20 metric tons of uranium fuel per year. This translates into roughly 2000 metric tons of spent fuel generated annually by the commercial nuclear sector. Virtually, all commercial spent fuel is stored at the site where it was generated in either a concrete, steel lined pool or in an above-ground dry concrete and steel cask. Typically, spent fuel rods are cooled in a concrete, steel lined pool for between 3 and 10 years, at which time they are transferred to a dry concrete and steel cask. In total, the inventory of commercial spent fuel is close to 65,000 metric tons, or enough to cover one football field about 20 feet deep. Of course, interim storage has its limits; nearly all nuclear reactors will need to continually seek on-site expansion of storage facilities, and some may hit physical limits.

In addition to commercial spent fuel, the United States inventory includes spent fuel and other high level waste from defense-related activities, which is managed by the Department of Energy. Most of this spent fuel has been produced and stored at the Hanford site in Washington State, the Idaho National Laboratory, and the Savannah River Site. Finally, there are roughly 27 metric tons of spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, which are cooperatively managed by the Navy and DOE through the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.

What’s at Stake?

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC), whose final recommendations were published in January 2012, concluded “this nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly and it will be more damaging and more costly the longer it continues: damaging to prospects for maintaining a potentially important energy supply option for the future, damaging to state—federal relations and public confidence in the federal government’s competence, and damaging to America’s standing in the world—not only as a source of nuclear technology and policy expertise but as a leader on global issues of nuclear safety, nonproliferation, and security.”

Put simply, our inability to tackle the political difficulty surrounding the waste issue undermines our energy, environment, and national security policy. Moving forward on addressing nuclear waste is critical to long-term greenhouse gas mitigation efforts, and many states have linked resolution of the waste issue to new nuclear builds. California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wisconsin all prohibit new nuclear plant construction until certain waste management conditions are met.

Adoption of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations would go a long way toward restoring confidence that the federal government is serious about meeting its waste management commitments and would lower one of the barriers to the domestic construction of new nuclear power plants. Moreover, solving this challenge would also contribute to restoring U.S. leadership in nuclear energy globally; and that leadership is key to influencing standards for safety, security and operations of nuclear power plants in a manner which meets nonproliferation objectives.

U.S. leadership in waste management would help serve as a model for other countries that plan a major expansion of civil nuclear power and need a sound strategy for addressing waste. Moreover, engaging in fuel take-back programs with other countries would only be possible if the United States had a robust nuclear waste management system of its own. Currently, several foreign governments are well ahead of the United States. For example, Finland has already approved a site for a deep geologic repository, which is due to begin operation in 2020. France has also secured a long-term repository site that is expected to open in 2025. Furthermore, repository siting operations are well underway in Russia, which hopes to commission a site by 2021. Finally, Sweden’s proposed long-term repository is currently in the license review process.

Among its key recommendations, the BRC proposed implementing a new consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities, creating a new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program, granting access to funds provided by nuclear utility ratepayers for the purpose of nuclear waste management; and making prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal and consolidated storage facilities.

A recent bipartisan Senate bill, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013, was introduced by Senators Wyden, Murkowski, Feinstein, and Alexander on June 27 that echoes many of the recommendations made by the BRC. In particular, the bill calls for the creation of a new “Nuclear Waste Administration,” use of a consent-based process for siting consolidated storage and repository facilities, linkage between the construction of storage facilities and progress on a repository, and creation of a new “Nuclear Waste Administration Working Capital Fund” in the Treasury Department. Commentary on each of these elements is provided below.

A Nuclear Waste Administration

Since the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA), the Department of Energy has held responsibility over the nation’s nuclear waste management program, including the disposal of commercial spent-fuel and high-level waste from the nation’s reactors. Although DOE oversaw the successful opening and operation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, gridlock over Yucca Mountain—which was obligated by the NWPA to begin accepting waste for disposal by 1998—has led to diminished trust and credibility among the public. Instead, the Senate bill calls for a new federal agency headed by a presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed administrator. As the BRC notes, DOE’s large structure, “multiple competing missions,” and annual, congressionally appropriated budget may be incompatible with the focus and consistency required of a nuclear waste disposal effort. A new waste management organization with tighter control of its budget may ameliorate these issues.

A Consent-Based Process for Consolidated Storage and a Repository

The recent bill also recommends a consent-based process for the siting and construction of a pilot spent fuel storage facility, one or more consolidated storage facilities, and a repository. Indeed, siting a storage or disposal facility has proven to be the most difficult aspect of nuclear waste management efforts. First selected in 1987 to be the nation’s first deep geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel, the Yucca Mountain project has endured decades of delay and political gridlock. Regardless of the future of Yucca Mountain, the BRC recommends that the United States site and construct a second repository because the accumulated inventory of spent fuel has nearly reached the amount that could be stored at Yucca Mountain.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) provides a good example of how future consent-based siting processes might work. While WIPP was not without its own controversies, much of its success might be owed to early partnership and support from the state of New Mexico and local residents. As a result, a bottom-up approach that solicits volunteer host communities may provide the best chance of moving forward on nuclear waste management.

Linkage between Storage Facilities and a Repository

The Senate bill also proposes linking the construction of storage facilities with progress on a repository. That is, 10 years after the bill’s enactment, new intermediate storage facilities may only be constructed if Congress has identified a site for a permanent repository. This measure may provide some insurance against further stopgaps to the nation’s nuclear waste problem.

Nuclear Waste Fund

Finally, in an effort to ensure access to dedicated funding for nuclear waste disposition, the bill establishes a Working Capital Fund, where fees collected from utilities (currently going to the Nuclear Waste Fund) would be deposited. Such funds would be immediately available to the Nuclear Waste Administration. While the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF) was originally intended for this purpose, budget rules have caused the nation’s nuclear waste management efforts to compete for discretionary funding every year during the appropriations process. As a result, $27 billion in the NWF was allocated to other unrelated federal budget needs. While the bill attempts to remedy this issue, a long-term solution would provide the Nuclear Waste Administration access to the NWF.


The Senate bill’s chance of success is uncertain, given the position of many Republican members that the country has already reached a political agreement that clearly designates the use of Yucca Mountain. Although we do not think political opposition to Yucca or other repository sites is sustainable in the long run because of the indispensable role of nuclear power, we do not know how long the waste issue will remain mired in political quicksand. Given the sector’s current economic challenges and the national security imperative to maintain competitiveness in nuclear technology and services, we support a national waste policy that results in more immediate progress.

Michael Wallace is director of the Nuclear Energy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Dave Banks is senior fellow and deputy director of the Nuclear Energy Program at CSIS. Alayna Rodriguez is a research intern with the Nuclear Energy Program at CSIS.

Commentaries are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Michael Wallace, George David Banks and Alayna Rodriguez