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Nuclear Energy

Storage, Disposal and Transportation of Radioactive Wastes

Pro   Con

The disposal of high-level nuclear wastes does not pose a substantially different danger from those we already live with. Many hazardous materials already stored in the earth, such as poisonous gases, are subject to various natural disasters. Many man-made structures such as large dams, also pose a significant safety threat if they should fail.1

Critics of nuclear power have greatly exaggerated the potential risks of nuclear waste disposal. Finding a method of permanent disposal of such a relatively small quantity of material presents no major technological problems.2

All the spent fuel produced to date by commercial nuclear power in this country could fit within a single football field and be only about three feet deep. That's a remarkably small amount when you compare it to the millions of tons of other industrial wastes accumulating. each year. The small volume of high-level waste makes it highly controllable, compared to the wastes of other kinds of industrial activity.3

More than 5000 spent fuel elements have already been shipped over the past two decades in specially designed casks without a single accident causing a harmful release of radiation.4


Until a technology for safe, permanent containment of radioactive wastes has been developed and tested, it is irresponsible to continue producing them. The moratorium on nuclear power takes on an added element of urgency when the careless record of the government in handling wastes is taken into consideration.5

The extremely lengthy amount of time that nuclear wastes must be isolated casts doubt on our ability to guarantee a safe system of disposal. None of our political or social institutions have remained free of revolution for as long as 1,000 years, so there is no way to ensure that a stable monitoring system can remain in place as long as necessary.6

Significant technical uncertainties about the safety of using geological repositories for the final isolation of high-level nuclear waste remain unresolved. The effects upon the host rock caused by repository construction and burial of thermally hot wastes are poorly understood. Mechanisms of groundwater flow into and radionuclide transport out of the repository must be identified. Geologic behavior of the repository area must be predicted over time spans of hundreds of thousands of years. The response of waste canisters to emplacement in particular geologic environments and the effects upon canister retrievability must be evaluated.7

Ethically, we do not have the right to burden future generations with the potential risks posed by nuclear wastes.8

The alleged "perfect" record of nuclear transport is flawed. No major accidents have occurred, but many troublesome incidents have. While federal agencies believe the probability of a severe nuclear transportation accident is low, this estimate is highly uncertain and open to question. Truck accidents occur at the rate of about one per 2.5 million miles traveled. Using conservative predictions, a probable number of five nuclear waste transportation accidents will occur by 1990, rising to 27 accidents by the year 2000.9

The present performance and design standards for fuel shipping containers are not adequate to protect public health and safety. Impact, puncture and fire test standards can all be exceeded in an accident. The Department of Transportation has not regulated the industry carefully.10

AMA Commentary

Nuclear Waste and Radiation

Life on earth has evolved amid the constant exposure to naturally occurring radiations from beyond earth (cosmic radiation) and from radioactive material within the earth's crust.11 About half the radiation people are exposed to annually comes from natural sources, and the other half comes from man-made sources (medical diagnosis and therapy account for more than 90 percent of the man-made exposures).12

Although naturally occurring radioactive elements eventually become part of the nuclear waste stream, the bulk of the most potentially dangerous nuclear waste is composed of fission products produced in nuclear reactors. U.S. defense activities have generated the greatest volume of nuclear wastes up to the present; however, by the end of the century commercial wastes, including spent fuel assemblies, will greatly exceed defense wastes in radiation content.13

As the uranium in the core of a nuclear reactor is bombarded by neutrons, two kinds of radioactive materials are created. Fission products are the lighter radioactive atoms that result when uranium atoms split (fission). Heavy elements, including various forms of uranium and other heavier elements such as plutonium, also build up in the fuel. These heavier elements are usually referred to as transuranic because their atomic numbers are greater than that of uranium.14

Radioactive wastes are differentiated by the intensity of their radiation, which is determined by the number of "rays" or particles emitted per second per unit of volume. They also differ in physical form (liquid, gas, or solid), in chemical form (and therefore in their potential impact on the environment) and in the nature of the radiation they emit (alpha, beta, and gamma). While all are potentially harmful, they differ in their penetrating power and in the manner in which they affect human tissue.15

There are wide discrepancies in estimates about how long nuclear wastes remain hazardous. Some experts say that a 300-500 year isolation period for high-level waste is adequate, and others say that a million years is the proper time-frame. There is a vast difference in half-lives among the different radioisotopes in nuclear wastes: each radioisotope has its own half-life, which refers to the time it takes to lose 50 percent of its activity by decay. Thus, the hazard from radioactive emission decreases with time. The fission products strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about thirty years; the much less abundant transuranic element plutonium has a 24,000-year half-life. According to the Department of Energy, most low-level waste will decay to the hazard level of uranium ore within one-hundred years.16

Waste Categories in the United States

Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently in the process of redefining waste categories, the following definitions provide a general overview of how radioactive wastes are classified:

  • Sent fuel: Irradiated fuel discharged from a nuclear reactor. Contains fission products, unused uranium and plutonium, and various transuranic (TRU) elements.

  • High-level waste (hlw): Highly radioactive material (in the form of liquid and sludge) resulting from chemical processing of spent fuel to recover usable uranium and plutonium. Contains fission products, races of uranium and plutonium, and other TRU elements.

  • Transuranic waste: Materials contaminated with enough TRU elements to require the same sort of long-term isolation as hlw.

  • Mill tailings: Slightly radioactive materials left over from extraction of uranium from ore.

  • Low-level waste (llw): All radioactive wastes not classified as hlw, TRU waste, mill tailings or any other classification of radioactive byproduct material. Most llws are relatively short-lived, but some may present a significant radiation hazard.17


Today's U.S. commercial nuclear power system is dominated by one kind of reactor, the light-water reactor, and by a fuel cycle based on once-through uranium use. "Once-through" means that only fresh uranium oxide fuel is used; spent fuel, rather than being reprocessed, is being stored until a method of permanent disposal is established.18

Originally, the nuclear power industry intended to reuse the uranium recovered through the reprocessing of spent fuel. Although reprocessing of some commercial spent fuel did take place in the early 1970's, it soon ceased because regulatory and technical problems made it too expensive.19

While the once-through cycles uses uranium fuel in a form that cannot be used directly to produce nuclear weapons, reprocessing of spent fuel separates out both unused U-235 and plutonium, the material from which nuclear weapons are fabricated. For that reason, President Carter imposed a moratorium on the reprocessing of commercial spent fuel. Although the moratorium was lifted by President Reagan in 1981, private industry still has no plans to pursue reprocessing in the United States because of the expense and unreliable government policies. Reprocessing of commercial spent fuel continues in other countries, and reprocessing of spent fuel in the U.S. is carried out by the federal government for weapons production.20

The solution leftover from the reprocessing procedure becomes a new form of high-level wasate. It is highly radioactive and must be solidified before disposal. At present, the main source of high-level wastes is generated by the reprocessing of spent fuel from defense-related activities. If reprocessing of spent fuel from commercial power reactors is undertaken, it could rapidly become the primary source of high-level waste.21

Approaches to Waste Management in the U.S.

Isolation -- the placement of radioactive materials so that contact between the material and humans (or the environment) is highly unlikely for a specified period of time -- is the goal of radioactive waste management.22

There are two conceptually distinct technological approaches to waste isolation: storage and disposal. Storage permits easy access to the waste after emplacement and requires continued human control and maintenance to guarantee isolation. Disposal is isolation that relies on natural and engineered barriers, does not require continued human control and maintenance, and does not permit easy human access to the waste after emplacement.23

An Overview of Waste Management in the U.S.

From the time nuclear technology was first developed until 1982, the search for a scientifically, technically, and politically acceptable system for managing high-level waste and spent reactor fuel was in a continued state of flux.24 At present, many problems related to radioactive waste management remain unresolved.25

The country's first large-scale attempt to manage high-level waste took place under the supervision of the Atomic Energy Commission. It involved the reprocessing of defense-related spent fuel and the storage of liquid wastes from reprocessing in carbon steel tanks. Although the tanks were designed to last 50 to 100 years, between 1957 and 1973 premature corrosion caused these tanks to leak at storage sites at Hanford, Washington and Savannah River, South Carolina.26

Revelations of technical problems with waste disposal, mounting public concern, and finally a 1979 federal Court of Appeals decision (Minnesota v. NRC) rejecting as unproven the NRC's "reasonable assurance" that waste disposal facilities would be available as needed, led the 96th and 97th Congresses to pass legislation aimed at resolving the waste disposal problem faced by the domestic nuclear power industry. This legislative activity culminated in the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.27 Separate legislation, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980, governs disposal of low-level radioactive waste.28

Disposal of High-Level Waste in the U.S.

Almost all of the spent fuel elements from nuclear reactors are stored on site in pools of water at nuclear power plants across the United States. These holding pools, designed to temporarily store the spent fuel, are rapidly reaching capacity. The Department of Energy is currently searching for one or more sites which will serve as permanent repositories for all of the country's commercial high-level waste. However, the scheduled opening of the nation's first high-level nuclear waste facility has been postponed from 1998 to 2003.29

Over 12, 500 metric tons and 14 billion curies (one curie equals 37 billion radioactive disintegrations per second) of irradiated nuclear fuel have accumulated as a result of American nuclear power plant operations, along with 5,000 cubic meters of reprocessed fuel. Another 368,000 cubic meters and 1.4 billion curies of high-level waste have been generated from the reprocessing of irradiated fuel from government-operated nuclear weapon reactors.30

Although the volume of high-level radioactive waste is small compared to other hazardous industrial wastes, the cost of high-level radioactive waste disposal is much higher than for other wastes because of the disposal techniques it requires.31 (For a description of proposed high-level waste disposal techniques, click here.)

Disposal of Low-Level Waste in the U.S.

The traditional approach to low-level radioactive disposal in the U.S. has been through a method known as shallow-land burial (SLB). SLB is a relatively simple technology involving the burial of radioactive debris, enclosed in containers, in shallow trenches.32

Although nuclear authorities maintain that shallow-land burial is an adequate way of containing llw without degrading or damaging the biosphere,33 during the 1970's trenches at three of the (then) six operating commercial dump sites leaked, and radioactivity spread to adjacent soil. Plutonium was detected moving from trenches at the West Valley, New York site and at Maxey Flats, Kentucky.34 (No offsite migration of radionuclides has been detected at the other three sites.)35

Between 1975 and 1978, three commercial facilities closed, leaving only three sites to accommodate the nearly 3 million cubic feet of low-level radioactive wastes generated annually by private industry. These closures prompted Congress to pass the 1980 Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, which made each state responsible for disposing of the commercial llw produced within its borders. To create regional disposal sites, the law encouraged states to enter into multi-state agreements called compacts, with each compact requiring Congressional approval.36

Three regional compacts formed around the three states with existing llw disposal sites. However, the 1980 law allowed a compact region to exclude wastes generated outside the region after January 1, 1986, and no sites beyond the three existing sites were ready by that deadline. So, to assure that the three "sited compacts" would not exclude other regions' llw, Congress passed Amendments to the 1980 law in December 1985. The Amendments also included incentives and penalties to prod non-sited states and regions to move forward with the job of providing their own disposal capacity.37

In response to inquiries from other states, the NRC is studying alternatives to shallow-land burial for llw. They are focusing on methods that combine engineering features with soil cover, such as below-ground vaults and earth-mounded concrete bunkers.38

About 3 million cubic meters of commercial low-level wastes are stored at six burial sites across the country. An additional 2.1 million cubic meters of llw is buried at government waste sites in various locations.39

1 Fenn, op. cit., p. 178.
2 Ibid.
3 U.S Committee for Energy Awareness, "Nuclear Energy: Moving Ahead," pamphlet, p. 21.
4 Ibid., p. 23.
5 Fenn, op. cit., p. 176.
6 Ibid. p. 176.
7 Ronnie Lipshutz, Radioactive Waste: Politics, Technology and Risk, Union of Concerned Scientists, (Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 76-80.
8 Fenn, op. cit., pp. 176-6.
9 Marvin Resnikoff, The Next Nuclear Gamble: Transportation and Storage of Nuclear Waste, (New York: Council on Economic Priorities, 1983), pp. 22-24.
10 Ibid., p. 190.
11 "Radiation in Medicine and Industry," Health Physics Society, pamphlet, 1980, p. 2.
12 League of Women Voters, The Nuclear Waste Primer, (New York: Nick Lyons Books, 1985), p. 17.
13 Ibid., p. 7.
14 Union of Concerned Scientists, "Disposal of Radioactive Waste," Briefing Paper, October 1984, p. 1.
15 League of Women Voters, The Nuclear Waste Primer, op. cit., p. 8.
16 Ibid., p. 26.
17 Managing the Nation's Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste, op. cit., p. 24.
18 League of Women Voters, The Nuclear Waste Primer, op. cit., p. 14.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid, pp. 14-15.
21 Managing the Nation's Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste, op. cit., pp. 26-28.
22 Ibid., pp. 26-27.
23 Ibid.
24 League of Women Voters, The Nuclear Waste Primer, op. cit., p. 48.
25 Christopher Meyers, "History, Structure, and Institutional Overview of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982," (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, August 1986), p. 2.
26 Managing the Nation's Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste, op. cit., p. 84.
27 Meyers, op. cit., pp. 3-4.
28 Ibid., p. 1.
29 "Opening of First Nuclear Dump Delayed Till 2003," Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1987, 1:4.
30 Nuclear Information and Resource Service, "Nuclear Waste," Energy Fact Sheet 1, July 1986.
31 Managing the Nation's Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste, op. cit., p. 32.
32 Susan Stranahan, "The Deadliest Garbage of All," Science Digest, April 1986, p. 80.
33 E. Michael Blake, "Alternatives to Shallow-land Burial," Nuclear News, March 1987, p. 61.
34 Stranahan, op. cit., p. 80.
35 Alison Fuller, "Disposing of Low-Level Radioactive Waste in California: 1987 Update," League of Women Voters Southern California Regional Task Force, booklet, June 1987, p. 11.
36 Ibid., p. 13.
37 Ibid.
38 Ibid, p. 11.
39 Nuclear Information and Resource Service, "Nuclear Waste," op. cit.