Nuclear Waste Storage
Written by Steve Hudgik March 2013
The federal government, through agencies such as the EPA, DOE, DOT, and the NRC, has the overall responsibility for the safe storage of high level nuclear waste, which is primarily spent nuclear fuel.
The EPA is responsible for developing environmental standards that apply to both DOE-operated and NRC-licensed facilities. The NRC is responsible for licensing those facilities and ensuring their compliance with the EPA standards. The DOE is responsible for developing a deep geologic repository for nuclear waste storage. Both the NRC and the Department of Transportation are responsible for regulating the transportation of these wastes to storage and disposal sites.
Nuclear Waste Storage Law
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) authorized the use of deep geologic repositories for the safe storage of radioactive waste. The NWPA established procedures to evaluate and select a site for use as a geologic nuclear waste storage location. It also established a timetable and key milestones that federal agencies had to meet in carrying out the program.
The NWPA gave the Department of Energy (DOE) the responsibility to find a location, build, and operate a deep geologic repository for nuclear waste storage. It directed the EPA to develop standards for the protection of the environment from off-site releases of radioactive material stored in the repository.
Amendments to the NWPA included:
- Directed the DOE to consider Yucca Mountain as the primary site for the first repository.
- Prohibited the DOE from conducting activities at a second site unless authorized by Congress.
- Required a report on the need for a second repository no later than January 1, 2010.
- Required a study of the need and feasibility of a monitored retrievable storage facility.
The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site was approved in 2002 and construction was started. However, in 2010 it was defunded by the U.S. Senate. All funding was ended by an amendment to the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, passed by Congress on April 14, 2011.
Low-Level Radioactive Waste
Most nuclear waste is low-level nuclear waste. It mainly is composed of items such as used PPE, cleaning rags and mops, medical swabs and tubes, tools, and other materials that have become contaminated with radioactive material. There are three disposal facilities that accept this type of waste and bury it. The layers of earth placed over low-level waste is sufficient to protect the public and the environment.
The only significant amount of nuclear waste that is stored is spent nuclear fuel.
Nuclear Waste Storage - Spent Fuel
There are two acceptable storage methods for spent fuel after it is removed from the reactor core:
- Spent Fuel Pools - most spent nuclear fuel is currently stored in specially designed pools at each individual reactor sites.
- Dry Cask Storage – if the spent fuel pool can no longer hold additional spent fuel, a method for dry storage in casts may be licensed.
Nuclear Waste Storage - Answers To Common Questions
How common is storage of spent fuel in pools?
All nuclear power plants in the U.S. store their spent nuclear fuel in "spent fuel pools." These pools are designed to be very strong. They are made using reinforced concrete several feet thick with steel liners. The water is typically about 40 feet deep. The water serves both to shield the radiation and cool the rods.
What is dry cast storage?
As a spent fuel pool nears its capacity, the power company will move some of the older spent fuel into "dry cask" storage. Spent nuclear fuel is typically cooled for at least 5 years in the pool before it is transferred to cask. However, the NRC has authorized some transfers as soon as 3 years after the fuel was taken out of service. The industry average is about 10 years.
Are spent fuel pools safe?
The NRC believes both spent fuel pools and dry casks provide adequate protection of the public health and the environment. Both technologies provide a high level of protection. Therefore there is no pressing safety or security reason for a quicker transfer of spent fuel from pools to casks.
Is Spent Nuclear Fuel Safe From Terrorists Attacks?
After the 9-11 terrorist attacks the NRC issued orders to nuclear power plant operators that required several changes to reduce the effects of a large fire, explosion, or accident that resulted in damage to a spent fuel pool. These changes were designed to deal with the aftermath of a terrorist attack or plane crash. However, they are also effective in providing additional protection should there be damage from a natural disaster such as a tornado, earthquake or tsunami.
These mitigating measures include:
- Controlling the configuration of fuel assemblies in the pool to enhance the ability to keep the fuel cool and recover from damage to the pool.
- A requirement to establish an emergency spent fuel cooling capability.
- Staging emergency response equipment nearby so it can be deployed quickly.
How much spent nuclear fuel is there?
According to the Congressional Research Service (using NEI data), there were 62,683 metric tons of commercial spent fuel accumulated in the United States as of the end of 2009.
- 48,818 metric tons (78%) is in pools.
- 13,856 metric tons (22%) is stored in dry casks.
- The total increases by 2,000 to 2,400 tons annually.
Nuclear waste storage will continue to be in spent fuel pools and dry casks, located at each nuclear facility, for an indefinite period of time. Until either a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility for recycling spent nuclear fuel is built, or a permanent nuclear waste storage facility is built, there is no other option other than local storage of spent nuclear fuel.