NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What to Do With America's Nuclear Waste

April 11, 2011

Unnecessarily, in the United States we currently store spent nuclear fuel rods, in many instances, at power plants in above ground facilities just like the one in Japan now troubling the world, say H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and Dave Stevenson, the director of the Center for Energy Competitiveness at the Caesar Rodney Institute in Dover, Delaware. 

  • Indeed, there are currently about 71,000 metric tons of spent fuel and high level radioactive waste stored at 121 nuclear power plants and non-military government sites.
  • While this may seem like a lot, the entire 50 years worth of spent fuel could be stored in a space the size of one football field piled 41 feet high.
  • Waste grows at a rate of 2,000 metric tons a year.

Three storage options have existed for years: Yucca Mountain, Nevada; the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico; and recycling spent fuel.  Unfortunately, politics has prevented us from availing ourselves of these options.

Yucca Mountain.

  • After 26 years and more than $13.5 billion spent, the initial Yucca Mountain facility is complete and ready to accept up to 70,000 metric tons of waste and only requires final licensing.
  • However, despite scientific evidence that Yucca Mountain is safe, political wrangling has prevented opening the facility -- in an executive order the Obama administration zeroed out spending on it.


  • WIPP is already open and more than 100,000 containers of radioactive material have been stored in a massive bedded (layered) salt deposit.
  • The salt in the formation is self-sealing: It flows like sand to fill in, or seal, the disposal chambers completely.
  • WIPP has been extensively monitored for human health and environmental risks for 15 years, showing no evidence of an increase in contaminants in the ground, air or water near WIPP.

The third option is to recycle spent fuel, say Burnett and Stevenson. 

Source: H. Sterling Burnett and David T. Stevenson, "Lessons from Japan on Nuclear Waste," Washington Times, April 11, 2011.

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