• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • Nuclear Energy’s Great, But What about the Waste?

    In response to rising energy prices the public perception on nuclear energy is quickly changing. In fact, a recent poll showed that 2 out of 3 Americans are in favor of building new nuclear plants.

    Both presidential candidates have nuclear on the table as an option to meet energy demands, albeit Senator John McCain more distinctly defined his role for nuclear power: a minimum of 45 reactors by 2030. Senator Obama also recognizes nuclear energy’s role to play in America’s energy profile, but criticized McCain for a “half-baked” idea. Speaking in Las Vegas in June, Obama said:

    “[Giving oil companies additional access to oil resources] doesn’t make sense for America. In fact, it makes about as much sense as his proposal to build 45 new nuclear reactors without a plan to store the waste some place other than right here at Yucca Mountain. Folks, these are not serious energy policies.”

    Of course, concern over nuclear waste isn’t unique to just Senator Obama. Waste storage is one of the most important impediments to more nuclear power in the public’s mind. But both candidates are hesitant to give a well-defined solution to the problem of nuclear waste. We’re here to do just that.

    Let’s start with some basics. What is nuclear waste? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission defines high-level nuclear waste as “highly radioactive materials produced as a byproduct of the reactions that occur inside nuclear reactors.” But to actually call it waste is misleading; this “used” fuel generally retains about 95 percent of the uranium it started with, and that uranium plus some other elements can be recycled. (There is also a separate definition for low-level radioactive waste here.)

    So it can be classified as either waste or potential energy? How much of this stuff does the U.S. have? Over the past four decades, America’s reactors have produced about 58,000 tons of used fuel. That “waste” contains roughly enough energy to power every U.S. household for 12 years.

    Okay, then what’s the problem? Heritage Research Fellow Jack Spencer explains it in detail here. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 attempted to establish a comprehensive disposal strategy for high-level nuclear waste. It charged the federal government with the responsibility of disposing of spent nuclear fuel and created a structure through which nuclear energy users would pay for the service.

    The federal government has since accumulated approximately $27 billion, but the nuclear waste is still sitting at reactor sites. The goal was to place it in a geologic repository in Nevada called Yucca Mountain but the government’s projected date of 1998 to open Yucca was slightly off-target. (The license application has been submitted by the Department of Energy and the earliest date it can be open is 2017.)

    Needless to say, the nuclear companies that have paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund with rate payers’ money weren’t thrilled about this. Consequently, they sued the government. As a result, taxpayers have already paid $94 million in lawyer expenses and $290 million in damages. The government is appealing another $420 million award. Long-term liability projections are astronomical, reaching $7 billion by 2017 and $11 billion by 2020.

    To make a long story short, the system is broken and the taxpayers are paying for it. Well, what’s the solution? First, despite the Yucca Mountain boondoggle, the repository remains critical to the management of used nuclear fuel. Even if nuclear waste is reprocessed, there will be remaining waste that needs to be placed somewhere else; opening a geologic repository is a necessary step. A more comprehensive approach would include a combination of interim storage, recycling, and geological storage.

    Sounds great, but how do we get there? We’ve got an answer for that too, privatize the whole shebang. A free-market approach to managing nuclear waste is the only way to ensure that the commercial nuclear industry will be sustainable in the long run. Among the steps needed to privatize the system, as outlined by Spencer, include:

    • Creating the legal framework that allows the pri­vate sector to price geologic storage as a com­modity;
    • Empowering the private sector to manage used fuel;
    • Repealing the 70,000-ton limitation on the Yucca Mountain repository and instead let technology, science, and physical capacity determine the appropriate limit;
    • Creating a private entity that is representative of but independent from nuclear operators to man­age Yucca Mountain;
    • Repealing the mil, abolish the Nuclear Waste Fund, and transfer the remaining funds to a private entity to cover the expenses of constructing Yucca Mountain; and
    • Limiting the federal government’s role to providing oversight, basic research, and development and taking title of spent fuel upon repository decom­missioning.

    The full paper can be found here. It won’t be easy. But if we’re serious about nuclear energy meeting energy demands and environmental goals, it is without a doubt necessary.

    Posted in Energy [slideshow_deploy]

    15 Responses to Nuclear Energy’s Great, But What about the Waste?

    1. Jim, Maui says:

      What about plasmagasification? I have read that it will even consume nuclear waste safely. The by-product of the "burned" waste is steam, which is used to power steam turbines for more electricity.

    2. Dave, laguna niguel, says:

      If it came from a non-harmful source it can be changed back into a non-harmful source. We just need to get the government OUT, and smart minds in to come up with a solution.

    3. Darvin Dowdy, Houst says:

      I've nothing close to a scientific mind, although science interests me, but it seems that if this "waste" emits some sort of force or energy, shouldn't it or couldn't it be harnessed in some way? And used? Until all of the energy is emitted/depleted? What with all the demand for new sources of energy these days.

      Hey, what about nuclear waste powered yard lights? Ha!

      I'm asking. Really curious. Certainly there must've been some research in this area. Darvin Dowdy

    4. Rod Adams says:

      I read through Spencer's proposed solution. We have some common ground, but his proposal leaves much to be desired. I especially dislike the notion of some kind of monopoly private entity controlling access to Yucca Mountain while still assuming that all current and future nuclear plant operators would have to use the facility. That would give that monopoly excessive power and influence over the course of the nuclear business and its ability to compete with fossil fuels and take their markets away.

      It would also limit human creativity and competition among nuclear power system operators.

      Yucca Mountain is, at best, the right answer to the wrong question. Here is roughly the way the question is stated today: "Assume that atomic fission by-products cannot be used for any purpose. Assume that people in the future will lose all knowledge of how to safely handle radioactive materials. Assume that all radiation levels, no matter how tiny, must be avoided at all costs. Assume that transportation costs will be born by someone else. Now, nuclear industry, government regulators, and ill informed public, where do you want to put your used fuel?"

      Yucca may be the right answer to that question.

      I prefer to change the question, since I do not like the initial assumptions or the way that the answer to that question is being implemented. Essentially all of the by-products of atomic fission reactions are rare materials with unique physical and chemical properties. Some of them are be exceedingly useful and valuable and some might fit that definition in the near or distant future.

      When my company begins to operate nuclear power plants, I would like to obtain the rights and responsibility of full and complete ownership of the byproduct material, subject to a few reasonable rules:

      1. Do not use it to build weapons or sell it to anyone who will do that.

      2. Do not allow any workers or members of the public to receive dangerous levels of radiation exposure.

      3. Do no allow any workers or members of the pubic to receive dangerous levels of chemical exposure from the byproducts or the processing chemicals.

      I fully recognize the responsibility part and the need to implement systems – including human training and development – to ensure that we protect workers and the general public indefinitely. That responsibility, however, is no different that that associated with any other POTENTIALLY dangerous industrial ingredient.

      If some plant operators do not want to deal with their waste, they could pay someone – like AAE – to take it and allow that entity to capture any residual value. Just like any other industrial or biological waste stream, there is a good chance that enough entities will see the value in the waste stream that they will actually bid for the privilege of taking title to the waste, thus turning what is currently a burden for nuclear plant operators into a revenue generating opportunity.

      IMHO – this is much closer to a free market solution to the issue of used fuel than making the silly assumption that there is some kind of inherent limit to our ability to find long term storage space for material that builds up in such tiny amounts that it would be hard pressed to fill up a single sports stadium after a couple of hundred years of operation.

      Rod Adams

      Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.

      Publisher, Atomic Insights

      Producer, The Atomic Show Podcast

    5. Jack Lohman, Colgate says:

      Yeah, but there's something about "privatization" of nuclear waste that bothers me. Think Blackwater an Haliburton. I like private companies that make a fair profit, I owned one myself. But in this case I'd rather see nationalization, perhaps with transparent contracts with private industry.

      Jack Lohman

    6. Donald Pay, Wisconsi says:

      It's very simple. Anyone who proposes to build a nuclear power plant needs to be responsible, totally, for the waste, and for the liability created by that waste in perpetuity. That means any proposed nuclear plant must come with a plan for the safe and permanent disposal of any waste, and that plan must be in place prior to operation.

    7. Rod Adams, Annapolis says:

      Mr. Lohman:

      While I agree that there are egregious examples of businesses with poor track records, there are also plenty of examples of nationalized enterprises that do not function very well either.

      Perhaps the best balance is a competitive private industry with a strong government referee that enforces standards. Most of us feel pretty safe on aircraft, for example, even though the act of flying has its inherent dangers.

      An inherent part of using fission for power generation is that there are some leftovers, but compared to all other reliable, human controlled energy sources the waste product volume is tiny. That is important because it makes it feasible to completely contain and isolate the waste stream. That is not possible with the deadly waste products of fossil fuel power systems.

    8. TS,NYC says:

      How does France manage to store all their waste with over 100 nuclear plants in the area less than a 6,000 sq. ft Mc mansion?

      They use a much more efficient breeder reactor. Why are americans so dumbed downed?

    9. Jack Lohman, Colgate says:

      Well, Rod, I'd sure hate to turn our nuclear waste over to the airline industry. Nor FEMA. Nor, frankly, the politicians whose campaigns are funded by the industry.

      My gut says that if we got the money out of the political system these guys would find a solution to not only this, but a whole bunch of our problems.

      Darvin Dowdy asks a very interesting question above. Why can't we find a use for it?

      Jack Lohman

    10. Jack Lohman, Colgate says:

      And this is troubling:

      "U.S. says sub leaked radiation in 3 Japan ports

      Governments say radiation from USS Houston too small to cause harm"


    11. Nicolas Loris Nick Loris says:

      Good question. The short answer is that the system for managing nuclear waste is broken. The government was legally obligated to take it off industry’s hands and hasn’t. The nuclear companies then sued the government. As Spencer writes in his paper, “The government's refusal to take possession of the used fuel has made both the federal government and the taxpayers liable to the nuclear power plant operators for an increasingly enormous amount that is projected to reach $7 billion by 2017.”

      While it’s a bit more complicated than this, the simple reason is that the incentive chain is broken. Also, the nuclear waste can’t be thrown back into the reactor to create more energy; a reprocessing plant must be built, which has extremely high front-end costs. If we haven’t built a nuclear reactor in over three decades, the private sector has little incentive to build a reprocessing plant unless it’s economically rational for the long-term.

    12. Rod Adams, Annapolis says:


      You wrote: "Also, the nuclear waste can’t be thrown back into the reactor to create more energy; a reprocessing plant must be built, which has extremely high front-end costs."

      Actually, the used material from the light water reactors that are common around the world can be used with just a bit of physical reshaping in the heavy water reactors used in Canada, South Korea, and several other nations.

      Google DUPIC to find out more. If you want a really good source, try


    13. Madeline, Maryland says:

      For TS in New York:

      The French have less than 100 plants, only 50 some but they will build more. Here is a good source for the names, info about the FRENCH reactors at each plant site: http://www.insc.anl.gov/pwrmaps/map/france.php

      The French have only one experimental sodium reactors (breeder) at Phenix. It is going to be shutdown soon. They are building the Jules Howowitz research reactor and it will take some time for its completion.

      France recycles its light water reactor fuel. Their PWR designs only use about 3% of the total uranium fuel available in the uranium only fuel pellets. France recycles their fuel to retrieve the unused uranium, and then use the "waste" plutonium to make new MOX (mixed oxide) fuel. This recycling has allowed France to have 80% of its electricity to be produced by nuclear plants, with 1/3 of the fuel coming from recycled, reprocessed used fuel. This means they do not have to mine more uranium ore. The French and British have recycled used nuclear fuel now for 30 years and they use it in their MOX fuel in their current operating water reactors (not breeders!)

      The FRENCH are leaders in separating Pu from Uranium in a not-so-proliferation-resistant process called PUREX, for Plutonium extraction. Also the French put all the waste fission products in high-tech glass logs to isolate the “nasty stuff” isotopes. That's how they have reduced the volume of their spent fuel waste (after reusing the fuel a few times!!!)

      By recycling fuel (like France, G. Britain, Japan)but by NOT separating the minor actinides from the Plutonium, the US would have a "proliferation resistant" method to be able to use the uranium fuel more effectively, and in fact burn the transuranic isotopes (Pu, Np, Am, etc.), produce more power, and significantly reduce the toxicity of the used fuel, and the space needed for permanent storage in a repository (Yucca Mountain).

      President Jimmy Carter said “no” to plutonium and fuel reprocessing, BUT the US DOE has figured it out. By using a UREX+ (uranium extraction, keep Pu and minor actinides together to prevent make the recycled fuel usable for weapons, essentially denaturing it like alcohol is denatured (methal vs. ethal alcohol) process, and collaborating with the FRENCH, the DOE has started research again into recycling technologies. Notice that the FRENCH learned the UREX/PUREX process from the US laboratories before Jimmy Carter stopped the research, and now that we have begun again, we in the US are 30 years BEHIND the French and Japanese…..

      This DOE program is called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (DOE’s program to recycle fuel). But Congress may kill it with the budget fiasco they are causing.

      For Mr. Loris:

      Haven't you heard? The private industry IS building a recycling plant at the Savannah River Laboratory in Georgia, to make MOX fuel (Duke Power, Cogema, Shaw, AREVA (the US and French company)using the Weapons-grade Plutonium from the US stock pile, to use it as fuel, hence "swords into plowshares". In fact, this private consortium will build, and operate the facility, and the MOX fuel will be used in US light water reactors. The DUKE power plants already have 4 fuel assemblies in the Catawba plants (fabricated in France of course!) producing power as part of a demonstration! Everything you want to know about this is available at the NRC website: http://www.nrc.gov/materials/fuel-cycle-fac/mox/l

      For Jim, Maui who wrote: "What about plasmagasification? I have read that it will even consume nuclear waste safely. The by-product of the “burned” waste is steam, which is used to power steam turbines for more electricity."

      Where did you get this crazy idea? Nuclear waste in a plasma could never be used to make steam directly in a turbine….yikes!

      Yes there is/was a huge plasma/accelerator device called Archimedes that was going to separate waste streams on two collectors, but the company FOLDED after a DOE project stopped up at Hanford, Washington: Please see these papers that describe the Archimedes Filter concept: http://www.wmsym.org/abstracts/2003/pdfs/399.pdf and http://epsppd.epfl.ch/StPetersburg/PDF/O1_006A.PD

      General Atomics bought the unit from the defunct company, and couldn't get funding at DOE to continue R&D (no budget, Congressional stupidity to fund "carbon sequestration" and "clean coal" oximoronic projects instead). GA has announced that the plasma/accelerator will be dismantled.

      But the plasma/accelerator filter technology may be useful someday to MAKE advanced fuels, on a smaller size….only if DOE gets the funding in the Nuclear Energy area vs. other Congressional pet projects….

    14. Pingback: Nuclear Reaction « Leighmcafee’s Weblog

    15. Jay Hubert, Greenvil says:

      From earlier material, Yucca Mountain was supposed to hold 83,800 metric tons for $46 Billion Dollars. This equates to $548 per kilogram. There are theoretical launching devices that are estimated at $392 per kilogram. (The Soviet Proton rocket costs $2,381 per kilogram payload). At a mass production pace, the $392 could be halved to $196 per kilogram. So although it would take some work, we could simply send the waste into the Sun for half of the Yuccca Mountain costs. The Sun has been working for the last four billion years.

      Have a great day,


    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.