In the U.S. there are now 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel at 75 locations in 33 states awaiting disposal and this volume of highly radioactive waste will swell at the rate of 2100 tons per year as existing reactors ask to have their licenses extended and a few new plants come online.
My August 12th, 2012 post, which discussed European plans to develop a long term disposal site in Northeast France, expressed concern about the Federal government’s inability to do something about this mounting problem that requires this waste to be stored at nuclear power plants rather than shipped to a permanent “safe” storage facility. Years ago, a disposal site had been identified as a buried location inside Yucca Mountain ( see graphic below) in Nevada, where any potential, eventual leakage would not, according to estimates, have caused problems for thousands of years due to the rock formation at that site.
Moving to Yucca Mountain was supposed to begin in 1998, though delays were starting to occur. Then, an intervention by Nevada’s senator Harry Reid, backed by President Obama resulted in cessation of plans to proceed with this solution. Now, with a Republican senate about to take control, this issue will most likely be reexamined as key advocates of the Yucca Mountain site head key committees for Energy & Natural Resources, Appropriations and Environment and Public Works. Some Democrats, including Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, with its huge storage of nuclear waste at Hanford, are also pushing form action. The Republican-controlled House will shortly introduce legislation to provide funding to continue NRC’s analysis of Yucca Mountain’s license application, according to an article in C&EN’s December 15th issue.
While transporting highly radioactive nuclear wastes is potentially hazardous, there is already substantial experience (3000 shipments by road and rail) for making such transports safely. Spent fuel is encased in massive steel casks, have walls five to 15 inches thick and containing materials that shield the environment from radioactivity. Additionally, there are regulations with railroads that prevent shipments occurring at times when other hazardous materials in rail cars would encounter such nuclear waste shipments. In Europe, nuclear wastes have long been shipped from a number of plants to a processing facility in Southwest France.
Not surprisingly, there is also the threat of terrorist attacks on shipments of nuclear waste, a subject of a National Research Council study Of course, there is a counterbalancing concern about terrorist attacks on nuclear waste stored next to power plants.. So, this remains a complicated subject requiring a number of answers to find an appropriate solution deemed safe and agreed upon.