Spent Nuclear Fuel in the U.S., France and Finland

Ahmed Sharif
March 20, 2011

Submitted as coursework for Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011


Nuclear reactors have provided a stable source of power to many countries since the 1950's. Nonetheless, operation of these reactors has also provided a steady stream of radioactive nuclear waste, i.e. spent nuclear fuel (SNF), since then. In fact, given current trends, the IAEA estimates that a total of 445,000 metric tons of heavy metal spent fuel (MTHM) worldwide will need to be disposed of by 2020. [1] Yet no permanent facility for the disposal of SNF currently exists. [1] As is evident, policymakers in nuclear-powered countries must soon develop permanent disposal solutions for SNF. This paper briefly discusses practices, policies, and challenges concerning the disposal of SNF in three countries at various points in the process of developing a long-term SNF disposal solution: the United States, France, and Finland.

United States

The United States currently has more than 65,000 metric tons of SNF in interim storage, and it adds approximately 2,000 metric tons of heavy spent fuel to this inventory every year. [1,2] This constitutes the largest inventory of SNF pending ultimate disposal. [1] Most of this waste is stored at active or shut-down reactor sites; a smaller fraction of SNF is stored off-site. [1] Generally, facilities store the waste in either containment pools (or "swimming pools") or dry casks. [2] Nevertheless, these solutions, as noted above, are only temporary; it is imperative that the U.S. find a long-term SNF storage solution.

As pressing of an issue as it is, the long-term SNF disposal issue has "vexed" Congress, scientists, and regulatory agencies for the last half-century. [3] After considering, and subsequently rejecting, disposal options ranging from "burying nuclear waste in polar ice caps to rocketing it to the sun," U.S. scientists came to a consensus on "deep geologic burial as the safest way to isolate this toxic material in perpetuity." [3] A geologic repository located at Nevada's Yucca Mountain was the U.S. government's primary focus over the last few decades; however, President Obama, with input from Senate leaders, canceled pursuit of this option last year, seeking instead alternatives that would not involve storage of thousands of pounds of radioactive waste at one site. [4] Public opinion in the media also suggests that Yucca Mountain was partially victim to NIMBY concerns. [5]

Looking forward, the Obama Administration has appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, a team of policymakers, academicians, and other industry experts; to tour sites around the country seeking alternatives to Yucca Mountain. The purpose of the commission is to not only evaluate the sites on a technical basis, but also to engage the public and understand relevant public concerns. Nonetheless, as it has in the past, the U.S. is likely to continue to struggle with NIMBY and other road blocks standing in the way of a long-term SNF disposal solution.


France currently has about 11,300 MTHM spent fuel in interim storage. [1] However, unlike the U.S., France sends SNF from power plants to a reprocessing plant in La Hague for fuel recycling. Thus, while the total volume of SNF waste that France must handle is relatively low compared to the U.S., France must handle the secondary stream of high-level radioactive waste associated with fuel reprocessing. Moreover, high-level radioactive waste resultant from reprocessing has a high heat output, and heat output, more so than volume, dictates disposal facility capacity. [6] After reprocessing, France vitrifies and places the high-level radioactive waste in interim storage at La Hague. [1]

Looking forward, under the 2006 Radioactive Materials and Waste Planning Law, the government must investigate either creating new storage facilities or modifying existing facilities for the purposes of storing long-lived high- and intermediate-level radioactive waste by 2015. [1] Moreover, the Planning Law requires that a deep geological repository for storage of high-level radioactive waste be commissioned by 2025. Similar to public engagement efforts of the Blue Ribbon Commission, the Law makes explicit requirements for public participation. The success and timely implementation of the 2006 Law is yet to be determined; France is still years away from selecting a waste repository site. [1]


Approximately 1,700 of MTHM are stored on-site at Finland's two nuclear plants. [1] The Olkiluoto power plant stores SNF in a fuel containment pool while the Loviisa plant utilizes a smaller storage facility. As is evident, Finland's nuclear power industry is much smaller than the nuclear power industry in the United States or France. Nonetheless, Finland serves as an excellent to case to examine given its significant progress with respect to waste disposal policy; it is the only country as of yet to have completed selection of a permanent repository site (with government approval). [1]

Finland started to research and develop long-term storage solutions for SNF in the 1980's, with a commitment to selecting a storage site by 2010. [1] In 2001 Finland selected a repository site in Eurajoki, nine years earlier than its original target selection date. [1] Moreover, the repository is anticipated to be operational by 2020. [7] Finland's success in selecting a permanent repository (as opposed to the struggles in identifying permanent sites in the U.S. and France) can be attributed to its active public engagement, its establishment of an independent repository siting body, and its adoption of a relatively rigorous technical standard.


Despite nuclear power's significant position in the developed world's generation resource portfolio, no country has yet started to construct a permanent SNF repository. Finland, in fact, is the only country to have selected a permanent repository site with governmental approval. Major roadblocks to other countries in site selection have been due to NIMBY concerns and a lack of public engagement in site selection. Countries such as the U.S. and France may benefit from examining the Finish model for developing a permanent SNF disposal solution.

© Ahmed Sharif. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] C. de Saillan, "Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel in the United States and Europe: A Persistent Environmental Problem," Harvard Environmental Law Review 34, 461 (2010).

[2] K. Darce, "U.S. Reactors Grapple with Japan Crisis," San Diego Union Tribue, 11 March 19.

[3] "Nuclear Energy Institute, Inc. v. EPA," District of Columbia Circuit Court, No. 01-1258, 9 Jul 04.

[4] D. Stone, "Flirting with Disaster," Newsweek, 4 Jan 11.

[5] J. J. Fialka, "The 'Screw Nevada Bill' and How It Stymied U.S. Nuclear Waste Policy," New York Times, 11 May 09.

[6] L. Gronlund et al., "Nuclear Power in a Warming World," Union of Concerned Scientists, December 2007.

[7] A. L. Mascarelli, "Funding Cut for US Nuclear Waste Dump," Nature 458, 1081 (2009).