40 Years Later and We Have Yet to Figure Out Nuclear Waste Disposal

  • Taxpayers spend between $400 million and $800 million each year (approximately $1 to $2 million per day) on nuclear waste storage due to the federal government’s failure to dispose of spent fuel sitting at nuclear power plants across the country.
  • For the past 35 years, nuclear power plants have accumulated over 3,000 dry used fuel storage systems ready to be sent to a permanent disposal site.
  • In 2021, the United States Department of Energy began its consent-based approach to the consolidation storage of used nuclear fuel.
  • As my grandfather J. Roger Hilley, associate director of storage and transportation systems in the Department of Energy, said in 1985: ”This is not a pronuclear or antinuclear issue. The fact is that it exists.”

There are a number of major global environmental health issues we face and must act on immediately. Many of these issues lead to climate change and environmental degradation but all of them pose a potential threat to the overall health and wellbeing of humans and various ecosystems. One of these issues is finding a clean solution to nuclear waste disposal. . . which was discovered over 35 years ago. . . but somehow there still is not a permanent policy in place that satisfies both public opinion/fears, as well as the nuclear energy community.

In the late 18th century—over one hundred years after the discovery of uranium—ionizing radiation, beta radiation, and gamma radiation were discovered, laying the groundwork for nuclear radiation. Years of research by chemists, physicists, and engineers around the world led to an understanding of nuclear fission, and by 1939 experiments measuring the energy output from this process were being conducted. It was later discovered that nuclear fission releases more neutrons, which cause fission in other uranium nuclei, and leads to a chain reaction in which a tremendous amount of energy is released.
For some time, these findings were used for weapons production, as groundbreaking discoveries in the field of nuclear fission were published just days before World War II began. After World War II, focus of nuclear power shifted from weapons to energy, and by 1958 the United States first commercial nuclear power plant was underway.
Today, there are fifty-four nuclear power plants in the United States with a combined ninety-five nuclear reactors. In these plants, two types of waste are produced: high-level and low-level. High-level waste is spent fuel, while low-level waste is equipment that has had contact with radioactive materials. Contrary to popular belief, radioactive waste produced at nuclear power plants is solid and in the form of pellets. High-level waste is highly radioactive and can have harmful effects on human and environmental health. Over the past sixty years, high-level waste has accumulated at temporary storage sites at various locations in the United States. Yucca Mountain, Nevada was selected in 1987 as a permanent storage site for used fuel. Billions of dollars have been spent developing underground repositories to safely store the spent fuel, but the site has yet to open due to political pressures from both the state and federal government, as well as public criticism.
Strict regulations by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ensure that the radioactive waste is handled and stored properly. After spent fuel is removed from a reactor, the fuel assemblies cool in a storage pool for up to five years. After it has cooled, it is then stored in dry casks until a permanent disposal site is opened.
Although nuclear energy is one of the cleanest forms of energy production and there are stringent regulations and security measures to ensure safety, the general public has an unfavorable view of nuclear power. This is due in part to a lack of knowledge of nuclear power plants, but also due to catastrophic events such as the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generation Station in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the Ukraine’s nuclear reactor disaster in Chernobyl in 1986. These accidents largely changed public perception of nuclear power, and support in the United States began to decline thereafter.
There are countless articles on the effects of nuclear waste and radiation on human and environmental health, public perception of nuclear power, and public health implications of nuclear waste disposal, in addition to thoroughly researched reports in support of as well as in opposition to its use. Some arguments in favor of the use of nuclear energy note it is an efficient method of energy production, detail the extent to which safety precautions are taken to prevent harm to human and environmental health, address the economic burden placed on taxpayers due to failure to ordain a permanent waste depository such as the destination in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and consider the urgency of proper storage as it relates to national security.
Arguments in opposition highlight adverse environmental impacts, the harmful effects of radiation, the incredible length of time nuclear energy remains radioactive, and the potential risks posed if designated waste depositories should fail.

Adverse Effects of Nuclear Waste and Radiation
Nuclear waste consists of radioactive waste from spent fuel rods and consists of numerous radionuclides, which are unstable configurations of elements that decay, emitting ionizing radiation which is harmful to the affected environment and the people inhabiting it. When radiation interacts with living tissue, energy is deposited, causing adverse changes at the cellular level. There are two different radiation exposure types: an external dose and an internal dose. External dose is radiation that passes through your body from outside sources, while an internal dose, which can be received over an extended period, occurs when radioactive material is inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin.
Internal dose exposure can lead to radiotoxicity, which is the “biological impact of radioactive nuclides on human health when they are ingested or inhaled.” Radiotoxicity is measured in sieverts (Sv), which quantifies the health effects of radiation on the human body. Radiation can come from naturally occurring sources, materials that are radioactive, or devices generating radiation, making it one of the most common environmental exposures. The NRC states that people who live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant could receive a 0.0000001 Sv radiation dose every year in the United States.
There are two main classes of radiation: low-level and high-level radiation. Exposure to low-level radiation, such as radiation from the environment, does not cause immediate health effects but may contribute some to your risk of cancer. High-level radiation exposure can lead to acute health effects such as rashes on skin or loss of hair in exposed areas, blistering and scarring of underlying tissue while also weakening a person’s immune system leading to a fatal infection. Small doses of high-level radiation can strip away the small intestine as well as kill off immature sperm-forming cells or oocytes, causing permanent sterility. High doses of high-level radiation can cause inflamed lungs and potential failure of the respiratory system. Radiation sickness can occur when there is rapid exposure of more than 1 Sv of radiation to a major part of the body. Children and fetuses are the most sensitive to radiation exposure because of the rapid division of cells in their bodies which can be interrupted by radiation exposure.
There are extreme cases of the effects of nuclear radiation, such as the Chernobyl explosion. Following the Chernobyl incident, there were 134 documented cases of radiation sickness and an increase in thyroid cancer for those exposed to radiation during childhood and adolescence in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. There are also major mental health impacts documented by cleanup workers, people who stayed in contaminated zones, and in people that were relocated. The relocation of 220,000 people after the explosion also caused massive social and economic hardship in the surrounding areas. Another environmental effect from the Chernobyl explosion is its effect on plants. The reproductive tissues on plants and trees were severely damaged and local water supplies were contaminated.
Creation of radioactive wastes such as uranium mill tailings and spent fuel from nuclear reactors is a major environmental concern because these materials are radioactive for thousands of years. When extracting uranium from ores, “85 percent of the radioactivity in the original deposit is left behind as tailings” and are free to migrate however they please and find their way into our water systems, the foods we eat, and our living spaces—they can even be absorbed by plants. Today, nuclear waste is usually stored in cooling pools for around five years and then moved into steel and concrete containers, also known as dry casks, filled with inert gas to keep radiation from leaking out, and kept on site until a designated storage area is found. The cooling pools and dry casks provide safe protection to humans as well as the environment. During the 1950s and 1960s there was a lack of safe long-term waste management leaving radioactive materials stored in areas that have lived out their design life posing environmental hazards. The most hazardous waste from nuclear energy is produced during energy production where radioactive gases are released into the atmosphere and radioactive liquids are released to the sea or rivers, but these actions are still cleaner than fossil fuels or biomass and contribute little to climate change. Compared to fossil fuels, nuclear energy can produce a large amount of energy using small amounts of fuel and creating little production of greenhouse gases.

Public Health Implications
Nuclear power plants are highly regulated around the world, and operators are usually required to take many steps towards the prevention of disastrous accidents. Engineers throughout time have also been continuously finding improvements in nuclear waste disposal methods to further prevent nuclear radioactive leakage into the environment. On the other hand, it is crucial for federal policymakers to finally find a solution for nuclear waste disposal and ramp up efforts in cleaner energy production—they must reach a decision concerning Yucca Mountain or some other long-term plan through federal or state policy.

Nuclear Waste Policy?
Management of radioactive waste has been referred to as Congress’ Achilles’ heel since the nuclear power industry’s inception in the 1950s. Federal policy is based on the premise that nuclear waste can be disposed of safely, but the facilities have consistently been challenged on safety, health, and environmental grounds. The United States currently has no permanent disposal facility for spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste. Disposal of spent fuel and high-level waste is a federal responsibility and states are responsible for disposal of commercial low-level waste.
40 years after Congress decided the United States government, and not private companies, would be the ones to identify storage strategies for radioactive waste, the cost of that effort has grown to $7.5 billion. Storing spent fuel from a nuclear reactor at an operating plant can cost approximately $300,000 a year, and for a closed facility the number can be upwards of $8 million a year.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 requires the disposal of spent nuclear fuel in a deep geological repository developed by the Department of Energy (DOE) and licensed by the NRC. Development at the proposed Yucca Mountain location has been halted numerous times, most recently under the Obama Administration. In 2009, after nearly two decades of delays, then-President Obama cut funding for the Yucca Mountain project and established The Blue-Ribbon Commission for America’s Nuclear Future (BRC) that recommended a “consent-based” process for nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities. This consent-based method was the idea that various organizations and individuals could come together to strategize how the disposal process would be tackled. The BRC was in charge of conducting a comprehensive review of policies for managing radioactive waste disposal and developing recommendations for a safer, long-term solution for managing waste.

The Trump administration included funds to reinstate Yucca Mountain licensing in its FY2018, FY2019, and FY2020 budget, but none of the requests for funds were enacted. Then in 2021 the Consolidated Appropriations Act, was passed by Congress to provide funding and direct the DOE to move forward with interim storage to support near-term action in managing the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.

Nuclear energy radiation and waste has been in the public eye for many decades, and the struggles of changing public perception and eliminating fear still remain. Although nuclear waste and radiation can have adverse health and environmental effects if not handled cautiously, nuclear still provides us with the cleanest energy. It has been 40 years since the NSPA required the DOE to find a permanent solution to nuclear waste disposal, and although the future of clean energy seems close, energy planners, policymakers, and the nuclear power industry still struggle to find a resolution.

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