America’s Nuclear Waste Storage Problem
Nuclear power is a controversial topic. It provides us with clean energy, but to some it also means there is a risk of an accident or natural disaster that could effect the health and well-being of Americans in 35 states at 80 different processing and power-production facilities.
The U.S. currently has over 65,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored in cooling pools at nuclear power plants around the country, and an additional 33 metric tons of spent fuel stored in dry casks on site at these plants. The U.S. has no permanent storage site for its high-level radioactive waste, which includes spent fuel and other highly radioactive material from reprocessing operations and production of weapons-grade plutonium during the Cold War era.
Methods of Reduction and Storage
The storage and disposal of nuclear waste is, to some, a major environmental concern. Nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste that needs to be stored and disposed of in a safe manner. There are two general approaches to the management of spent nuclear fuel, which is high-level radioactive waste from commercial nuclear reactors: 1) deep geological burial or 2) reprocessing.
Deep geological burial is exactly what is seems to be. Early ideas for central storage in American nuclear history included burying spent fuel rods that have been safely containerized in salt mines and other controlled areas. In 1995, for example, a license was requested to create a storage facility in the Yucca Mountains. A decision that still remains tumultuous and has been abandoned and revisited by nearly every sitting U.S. President since. Canada has recently implemented a strategy that involves deep geological repositories and engaged locals and citizens in proposed areas where the sites will be placed. Citing that placing these repositories will be brings and financial stability to these areas for the foreseeable future. Finland and Sweden have also made strides in the last decade as they safely remediate their nuclear waste by burial or reprocessing.
Reprocessing is utilizing the waste in more measurable means to produce power and, essentially, recycle spent fuel. The process utilizes previously used fuel safely. This process could be a more conscientious use of the radioactive materials that were historically produced. However, the United States has only recently, in March of 2022, embraced the idea of recycling. The company at the helm of this project, Oklo, has joined forced with Deep Isolation to utilize a $4 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build America’s first spent nuclear fuel recycling facility. These companies also develop containers for storage of nuclear waste. The facility will also house a “final waste solution compatible with a deep borehole repository” for non-recyclable waste.
Spent nuclear fuel storage and processing has been looming since America began its nuclear initiatives decades ago. While the history of the program has been marred by accidents and intention, as well as weaponization of nuclear materials, the waste remains a constant and must be remediated safely. Radioactive waste can remain radioactive for days, weeks or thousands of years. Plutonium, for example, can take thousands of years to degrade to safe levels. Due to the nature of the isotopes and elements involved, there is currently no safe way to speed up the degradation of these materials.
Earlier this year, the Federal Register posted a Notice of Request For Information that closed in March of 2022. This notice was to garner input from states, local governments, tribes and citizens in areas that might be interested in becoming spent fuel storage sites. At first glance, that might seem like a dangerous neighbor to invite. However, modern nuclear waste storage has evolved into world class safety standards and is heavily monitored by both federal and international experts.
Recently, New Mexico and Texas have been discussed as states that might house deep well or recycling facilities. Holtec and Orano are in discussions regarding these facilities. They also developed spent fuel storage cannisters, similar to Oklo and the Deep Isolation teams. There are no concrete plans in place and the plans will have to be approved through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy.