Lesson From Japan: Confronting The U.S. Nuclear Stockpile

It’s Time for Congress to Act, Says NCPA Expert

Source: NCPA

DALLAS - Japan’s current nuclear crisis reinforces the need for Congress to provide options for storing used nuclear fuel, according to experts at the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Caesar Rodney Institute.

“The time for political dithering is long past,” said NCPA Senior Fellow H. Sterling Burnett.  “The government, by law, is obligated to store spent fuel; it should get to the task of doing so.”

The most dangerous hazard in Japan’s nuclear crisis is caused by the loss of water that cools stored spent nuclear fuel rods.  In too many instances, the U.S. stores used nuclear rods in the same way.  In fact, about 71,000 metric tons of radioactive waste is stored at 121 separate nuclear power plants and facilities; that’s 50 years worth of spent fuel, according to Burnett and David Stephenson, director for the Center for Energy Competitiveness at the Caesar Rodney Institute.  But it can be stored in a space the size of one football field piled 41 feet high.

“Surely it is better to store that nuclear waste at a single, secure location, deep inside a mountain and miles away from the nearest city, than in cooling ponds or sitting in containers on concrete pads,” Stephenson said.

Both Burnett and Stephenson note that Congress has three options:           

  • Store the fuel at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which the Department of Energy identified as a safe storage area.
  • Store the fuel at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), located 25 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, which is now used to store military-grade nuclear waste.
  • Recycle the spent nuclear fuel rods. 

“Reprocessing fuel from the nuclear rods we already have stored as waste, as is done in other countries, would provide a virtually unlimited supply of nuclear fuel,” Stephenson added.  “France, for example, gets more than 75 percent of its electricity from reprocessed nuclear fuel.”  

“Recycling offers two major benefits,” Burnett added.  “Only about three percent of the energy has been used in the nuclear fuel rods we now refer to as waste.  Recycling those rods can provide an almost unlimited supply of fuel for the nation’s existing nuclear naval fleet and would significantly reduce the overall amount of waste that would have to be stored.” 

Both experts agreed: “Why should we allow radioactive nuclear rods to sit in 121 separate locations waiting a crisis, however unlikely, to occur?  Congress needs to act now.” 


H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is one of the country's leading authorities on energy and environmental issues. He is the lead analyst of the National Center for Policy Analysis' (NCPA) E-Team. Burnett's area of expertise includes topics that affect every American, such as government environmental policy, offshore drilling, global warming, endangered species an public lands.

The National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA)is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization, established in 1983. Research topics include reforms in health care; Medicare and Social Security; retirement; taxes; small business policy; and energy and environmentalregulation.