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Frequently Asked Questions about Nuclear Waste

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1. How much spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants is stored in the United States?

As of May 2014, the United States has almost 72,000 metric tons (MT) of spent nuclear fuel in storage from commercial power generation. Of that, about 50,000 MT (69 percent) is in pool storage and 22,000 MT (31 percent) is in dry cask storage.

2. How do we currently store nuclear waste in the United States? Is it safe?

Currently, spent nuclear fuel (SNF) generated at a nuclear plant is stored on-site either in pools of water designed to hold the SNF or in large, concrete enclosures called dry casks. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) provides requirements for the safe and secure storage of the SNF and, based on satisfying those requirements, issues a license for SNF storage.

3. How much nuclear waste would Yucca Mountain hold?

The limit on nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain is indentified in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended. The limit set by the Act is 70,000 MT. This 70,000 MT includes commercial power plant spent nuclear fuel (SNF), defense-related spent nuclear fuel, and other defense-related, high-level waste. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) set aside 7,000 MT of the 70,000 MT limit to account for the defense related waste. That left 63,000 available to dispose of the commercial power plant SNF.

4. Is there a difference between spent nuclear fuel and used nuclear fuel?

There is no substantive difference; the difference is in name only. Some people do not like to use the term “spent nuclear fuel” (SNF) because it implies that the fuel is “spent” when it has energy remaining in it that could be recovered and reused in another reactor; thus, the preference of some is to use the term “used nuclear fuel” (UFS). By highlighting that the fuel is not “spent” but “used,” it raises awareness that there is energy remaining in the fuel.

5. Are there any long-term storage or disposal solutions already in place in the United States?

There is one long-term disposal site for nuclear waste in the United States. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is approved to accept and dispose of defense related transuranic waste. Defense-related transuranic waste is waste that resulted from the development and production of nuclear weapons in the United States. WIPP has suspended operations until it can recover from a release of radioactive material in February 2014.

6. How long is the nuclear waste radioactive?

The length of time that nuclear waste is radioactive depends on the radionuclides (or radioisotope) in the waste. Different radionuclides have different half-lives (the time it takes for half of the radionuclide to decay). For spent nuclear fuel, the waste will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

7. What is the status of Yucca Mountain?

The status of Yucca Mountain is complicated. The Obama administration attempted to withdraw the license application submitted to the NRC in 2008 by the Bush administration. The Obama administration then moved to shut down Yucca Mountain and closed the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (RW) at DOE, which was responsible for Yucca Mountain. The Yucca Mountain license application has not been withdrawn and in August 2013, a U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the NRC to “approve or reject” Yucca Mountain license application. In accordance with this direction and working within available funding, NRC has restarted the Yucca Mountain licensing review. With available funding, the NRC has indicated they will not be able to complete the licensing process, but plan to issue a Safety Evaluation Report in January 2015.

8. Is dry cask storage safer than pool storage?

Spent nuclear fuel (SNF) is stored either in pools of water designed to hold the SNF or in large, concrete enclosures called dry casks. The NRC provides requirements for the safe and secure storage of the SNF and based on satisfying those requirements, issues a license for SNF storage. Either method of storage is safe. However, SNF fuel requires a degree of cooling which is dependent on the time passed since it was removed from the reactor: the longer the time out of the reactor, the less cooling required.

SNF pools cool the fuel by circulating cool water throughout the pool, which requires a system of pipes, valves, and pumps. Dry cask storage also provides cooling but in a passive way by using natural convection which requires no pipes, valves, or pumps. All things being equal, passive systems (natural convection in this case) have advantages over active systems (mechanical pumps) that accomplish the same function of cooling.

9. Would waste be transported by rail or truck if it needed to be moved to a regional or national storage facility?

Waste is likely to be transported by both rail and over the road by truck. Also, where it makes sense, waterways could be used. The spent fuel transportation packages are certified by the NRC to meet very stringent requirements for shipment by rail, truck, or ship.

10. I heard the federal government is no longer collecting a disposal fee from nuclear energy generators. Why did that stop?

That is true. The federal government is no longer collecting the waste fee from nuclear energy generators. The waste fee of 1 mill/kWh was set to zero by DOE in May 2014. This action was the result of a U.S. Court of Appeals decision in a lawsuit brought by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Nuclear Energy Institute. The court found that because the Obama administration’s termination of the Yucca Mountain program, for which the fee was intended, DOE could not continue collecting the waste fee. Setting the waste fee to zero complied with the Court’s intention.

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