Nuclear Waste Management in United States

John Keller
March 15, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


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

While the human race continues its constant struggle to provide enough clean energy for the world and its exponentially growing population. There has been a struggle recently to diverse from fossil fuels and move on to cleaner energy resources. One energy source that can provide kilowatts to replace the massive amount of energy created by fossil fuels is nuclear energy. The problem is that is considered very volatile energy resource that has to be closely managed, as recently proven by the disaster in Japan. The larger growing issue when it comes to nuclear waste is how to manage the constantly growing nuclear waste pile that has been growing tremendously as more and more nuclear energy is being created. More importantly, right now there is no long-term storage facility that is a safe place to store nuclear waste, a waste that needs to be stored for thousands of years.

Nuclear Waste Canisters

In accordance to the US Department of Energy, there is a very successful type of storage used to hold the actual spent fuel rods. They are called waste packages and each waste package would contain a drip shield. [1] Even though a waste package sounds very simplistic to store highly radioactive fuel rods, they are actually very complex. As noted in Fig. 1, there are many different checks, in order to insure that the integrity of the holding chamber will not be compromised. This ranges from the container having three lids to the sides having a two liners and then thick concrete. [1] In addition to the container itself having many different layers of protection, there is a highly sophisticated drip shield that encompasses every waste container. "The drip shields and the heat from the waste package will keep the waste packages dry for thousands of years, which reduces the corrosion rate of the waste packages. The titanium drip shield also protects the waste package from rock falls that could compromise the corrosion barrier of the waste package." [1] This is important due to the fact that the amount of time the container needs to keep its integrity in order to prevent the leaking of radioactive material into the air.

Storage Facility

There have been many attempts to build nuclear storage facilities such as Yucca Mountain in the United States, but all have ended up never making any traction due to the amount of backlash the government receives. Before the process is started of determining a location that would serve best as a storage facility turned out to be very difficult because "there will never be a perfect place, with 100% guarantee, where high-level radioactive waste can be safely contained". [2] There are three necessary criteria that are needed in order for a location to even be deemed as a possibility to be a long-term nuclear waste facility. The first criteria is the transportation of waste from the nuclear reactors to the storage facility, this will be done in the Yucca Mountain example by the use of the Nevada rail specifically created for the storage facility. [1] This is important for the obvious fact that the location needs to be accessible in order to allow nuclear power plants and other entities that create nuclear waste to send their material to be stored safely. The second criteria is there should be a temporary holding location that is on site that should be able to temporary store the nuclear waste after it has been transported, in order to allow the nuclear waste to be transferred from the temporary storage holder to a long term nuclear canister, before it has been sent to the long term storage facility. [3] This is important because even though the storage facility should withstand most of the weather elements that the environment will put on the facilities. There has to be a way that the storage container, also known as the canister, can hold up to the elements themselves. This leads to the necessity of the facility needing to be able to transfer the nuclear waste from the temporary transportation canister into a permanent holding canister that will allow the nuclear waste to be safely stored until it is no longer radioactive. The third and final criteria is the facility along with the barriers that have been created to protect the radioactive material must be designed to not allow any leakage.[3]. In addition, the site must be able to withstand any changes within its while maintaining its integrity. [3] This is the criteria that makes the storage facility so difficult to locate because of the fact that the facility needs to be a place that does not have any natural disasters that could lead to the destruction of the facility and the leakage of radioactive nuclear waste. In addition, for extra safety precautions, there needs to be little to no precipitation and ground water in the local area to prevent the corrosion of the canisters, which could have very serious consequences.


As James Flynn writes, "The major backers of the repository, the nuclear power industry, have pressed for a solution, not only because they are eager to get rid of the wastes piling up next to their reactors but also because they believe that the future of nuclear power is grim without an effective management program". [4] This quote is important because it describes how there has been no long term solution because of the fact that the government has been struggling to get Yucca Mountain cleared and onto construction. This is intimidating because of the fact that one of the major world energy producers in the United States still does not have plans to store its very volatile waste. In the end, unless there is a solution to the problem regarding the long term storage of nuclear waste, it seems that the days are numbered for the nuclear power plants in the United States.

© Charles John Keller. 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] L. Barrett, "Analysis of the Total System Life Cycle Cost for the Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Program," U.S. Department of Energy, DOE/RW-0533, May 2001.

[2] W. M. Alley and R. Alley, Too Hot to Touch (Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 229.

[3] "Nuclear Waste Policy Act," U.S. Department of Energy, March 2004.

[4] J. Flynn et al., "Time to Rethink Nuclear Waste Storage," Issues in Science and Technology 8, No. 4, 42 (1992).