Nuclear Waste Environmental Effects and Regulation

Samantha Chang
February 24, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: Nuclear waste. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear power plants generate waste at each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. [1] Waste is separated into two classifications of high- and low-level waste by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a government agency existing outside the federal executive departments. [1] High-level waste is a product of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing and vitrification of liquid high-level waste. [1] Low-level waste is characterized as any materials that may be radioactively contaminated or exposed to neutron radiation. [2] The environmental and human health effects of this waste are not clearly studied and studies are often politically charged. Concerns are primarily due to the long half-life of fission products of spent fuel radioactivity. For instance, the half-life of Tc-99 and I-129 are about 220,000 years and 15.7 million years, respectively. [3]

Agencies and Regulation

There exist many federal and state laws to protect environmental and human health and agencies to develop such legislation. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates certain sources of radioactivity and radiation exposure, but the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards creates and implements NRC policy for spent fuel and high-level waste regulation and disposal. It is responsible for safeguarding special nuclear materials, high-level radioactive wastes, and nuclear facilities. [4]

The Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs is a public health and safety agency that is responsible for coordinating environmental compliance between states, local governments, interstate and Indian Tribe organizations, and other Federal agencies. It manages the cleanup and disposal of contaminated sites. [5]

Federal Regulation

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is a Federal public safety and health agency that oversees civilian uses of radioactive materials such as source material, special nuclear material, and byproduct material. [6] For high-level waste, the U.S. Department of Energy ultimately heads the disposal or temporary storage of spent fuel. But in the meantime, each utility operating a nuclear power plant holds responsibility for containing its individual production of spent fuel and must use dry casks or spent fuel pools approved by the NRC. [1]

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 is a Federal law that regulates civilian and military uses of nuclear materials, including jurisdiction over development and disposal of nuclear waste in the United States. [7]

State Regulation

The Atomic Energy Act states that the NRC act in agreement with state governments to allow them to individually regulate specific radioactive materials. [7] These so-called agreement states agree to use the NRC standards of regulation, but can go beyond the scope of the NRC and regulate sources of radiation that the NRC does not. Agreement states do not typically regulate nuclear power plants or storage of high-level radioactive waste. [7]

© Samantha Chang. 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] "Nuclear Power Plants and Radioactive Waste Management in Wisconsin, Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, December 2013.

[2] M. I. Ojovan and W. E. Lee, An Introduction to Nuclear Waste Immobilisation (Elsevier, 2005), pp. 61-69.

[3] G. Desmet and C. Myttenaer, Technetium in the Environment (Springer, 1986).

[4] "Office of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards," United States Code, 42 USC 5844, 1 Jan 13, p. 5804.

[5] "Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs," United States Code of Federal Regulations, 10 CFR 1.41, 1 Jan 14, p. 14.

[6] "Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Purpose and Scope," United States Code of Federal Regulations, 10 CFR 73.1, 1 Jan 08, p. 444.

[7] "Nuclear Regulatory Legislation: 112th Congress; 2nd Session," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NUREG-0980, September 2013.