Nuclear Waste Recycling and Disposal: What's the Proper Road?

Frank Buncom IV
March 25, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: An image of nuclear fuel pellets and a fuel rod. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

From the dawn of time, humanity has not managed waste properly and Earth has paid the toll. Historically, man has dumped waste in the surrounding habitat without much concern for potential consequences. The methodology of this process being as simple as "dilute and disperse". For good reason, nuclear waste is handled much differently because of its potentially fatal qualities. Nuclear waste is the leftover material from nuclear energy generation, which contains high levels of radionuclides. The starting materials of this process can be seen in Fig. 1.

Waste Recycling

Recycling is the recovery and reprocessing of waste materials so that it may be used in new products. Because of its radioactive nature, recycling nuclear waste is limited on how it can be used; radionuclides are difficult to incorporate into new compounds and devices. The primary form of nuclear waste recycling consists of using spent nuclear fuel to generate electricity. It is reported that the 435 nuclear power reactors operating around the world generate roughly 10,500 tons of spent fuel a year. During the production of energy, only approximately 5% of uranium is consumed. [1] This generates electricity and produces products like plutonium that can be recycled. Moreover, there are prospective applications for the leftover uranium.

Waste Disposal

Most nuclear waste around the globe is simply destined for "disposal". In the case of nuclear waste, disposal refers to conditioning and storage. [2] Conditioning is a procedure that produces a waste package suitable for handling, transportation, storage, and disposal. [1] An example of this would be converting waste into a solid form and enclosing it in the proper containers. After this step, waste can be stored for many years until it can actually be disposed. Currently, most countries follow this procedure without consideration of recycling the material. Spent nuclear fuel is stored around the United States, but the US Department of Energy does not like to share the precise locations of the nuclear facilities.


All in all, the correct path to take with our spent nuclear fuel is to recycle and repurpose as much of it as possible. The greatest benefit of recycling is that the process itself somewhat cleans the waste fuel and the remainder that cannot be recycled is a less potent version of nuclear waste. [3] This means that the final waste product is less radioactive and will have to be stored for a smaller amount of time than waste fuel that is immediately destined for disposal. With that said, some components of the waste fuel remain highly radioactive and will continue to be problematic for thousands of years. For these reasons, nuclear waste should be recycled to its maximum capacity then stored safely from civilization.

© Frank Buncom IV. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] M. I. Ojowan and W. I. Lee, An Introduction to Nuclear Waste Immobilisation, 2nd Ed. (Elsevier, 2013).

[2] B. Hileman, "Nuclear Waste Disposal," Environ. Sci. Technol. 16, 271A (1982).

[3] D. Féron, D. Crusset, and J.-M. Gras, "Corrosion Issues in Nuclear Waste Disposal," J. Nucl. Mater. 379, 16 (2008).