The Ethics of Nuclear Waste

Penelope Edmonds
March 7, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Proposed design for Yucca Mountain waste repository. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The use of nuclear energy across the world has increased immensely since it was first discovered in the mid 20th century. But, with this increase of use comes an increase of nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is what nuclear fuel becomes after it is used in a reactor, and although it looks very similar to the initial fuel, its chemical composition has been altered resulting in a radioactive substance. The issue with this waste is not just that it is toxically radioactive, but that it also remains radioactive for thousands of years. If not disposed of properly, the radioactive waste could infect neighboring communities of nuclear power plants with radiation poisoning and lead to a catastrophic event. Thus, an ethical dilemma is presented when disposing nuclear waste.

What Constitutes Nuclear Waste

There are three levels of nuclear waste: high-level waste, which makes up 3% of the total volume of waste and has 95% radioactive content; intermediate-level waste, which makes up 7% of the total volume of waste and has 4% radioactive content; and low-level waste which makes up 90% of the total volume of waste and has only 1% radioactive content. High-level waste consists of used nuclear fuel that has spent around three years in the reactor, intermediate-level waste consists of mechanic components used in the reactors or reprocessing, and low-level waste consists of tools and clothing from power plants that have been slightly contaminated. [1]

History of Nuclear Waste Disposal

In the 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission that had formed shortly after the war, grappled with the issue of nuclear waste management. As scientists were on the frontier of nuclear energy, they had not been dealing with managing waste for long and there was no one big solution. The AEC looked for dump spots, and would license boats that would sail into the depths of the oceans and dump waste barrels out so that they would sink to the bottom and pose no danger to civilization. Another technique used was flushing waste in cooling ponds. This was not foolproof though and would often result in spillage to nearby streams and rivers. Mostly, nuclear plants would create holding tanks to dump waste in and store for future disposal. As one can infer, these tactics were not very sound and did not reassure the public's environmental and ethical concerns. Eventually, the idea of reprocessing used nuclear fuel came into play in which fissile and fertile materials are extracted and used to create fresh fuel. This form of recycling lowers the volume of high-level wastes, and is a sustainable way to deal with nuclear waste. [2] Currently, the US stores waste in pools, dry casks, and repositories, none of which are sustainable solutions as they still present high risks. [3]

Legislation Regarding Nuclear Waste

In 1974, Congress enacted the Energy Reorganization Act creating the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). This commission is responsible for regulating almost all commercial nuclear activities in the United States, and would replace the AEC. [4] The main focus was the prevention of a major reactor accident that could possibly harm public health and safety. [4] In 1982, Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which supports the use of deep geologic repositories for the safe storage and/or disposal of radioactive waste. [5] It is in charge of setting the standards for site selection for geologic repositories, and decides how state and federal governments can act upon this issue, making a list of criteria that federal agencies must meet. Finally, the act assigns the Department of Energy (DOE) to be in charge of the creation and locating processes of geologic disposal repositories, enforces the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set standards for protecting the environment overall from possible radioactive materials, and directs the NRC to regulate licences to the DOE based on the EPA's standards. [5] These acts have steadily increased awareness and safety of nuclear plants and their waste disposal.

Future of Nuclear Waste

Following the enactment of the NWPA, Yucca Mountain repository was created, a huge repository in Nevada (see Fig. 1). This was met with incredible opposition due to environmental concerns. The state of Nevada heavily protested it's creation on grounds that transporting radioactive materials would be dangerous, a high risk of an earthquake posed a huge threat, and there was a danger of possible contamination of groundwater below the repository. Instances like this demonstrate the difficulty in finding a place to put all of this waste. Hannes Alfven, a Swedish physicist once said: "The problem is how to keep radioactive waste in storage until it decays after hundreds of thousands of years. The [geologic] deposit must be absolutely reliable as the quantities of poison are tremendous. It is very difficult to satisfy these requirements for the simple reason that we have had no practical experience with such a long term project. Moreover permanently guarded storage requires a society with unprecedented stability". [6] As of now, the US is still searching for an ethical, sustainable way to dispose of radioactive waste.

© Penelope Edmonds. 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. Kumar, "Commercial Nuclear Energy Production and Nuclear Waste," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[2] A. Andrews, "Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: U.S. Policy Development," Congressional Research Services, RS22542, November 2006.

[3] B. Madres, "Storage and 'Disposal' of Nuclear Waste," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.

[4] "Energy Reorganization Act of 1974," Pub. L. 93-438, 88 Stat. 1233, 11 Oct 74.

[5] "Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982," Pub. L. 97-425, 96 Stat. 2201, 7 Jan 83.

[6] J. Abbotts, "Radioactive Waste: A Technical Solution?" Bull. Atom Sci. 35, No. 8, 12 (October 1979).