No Permanent Storage
of Radioactive Waste
Nuclear plants produce large volumes of highly-lethal radioactive waste for which there is no permanent repository. The waste must be isolated from the environment for 220,000 years. The oldest human-made objects that have survived and been found are only about 40,000 years old, less than 1/5 the time we will have to isolate this highly toxic and massive waste problem.
That waste, plus waste from weapons manufacture, totals more than a quarter million tons worldwide, with 90,000 metric tons of irradiated nuclear fuel just in the U.S. That number grows by 2,000 metric tons a year and doesn’t include the many tons of lower level radioactive waste.
From the beginning to the end of the uranium fuel chain, harmful, long-lived radioactive waste from nuclear development has been viewed as somebody else’s problem. Unmanaged toxic radioactive waste begins with uranium extraction, creating mountains of waste rocks and sludges or tailings. These tailings contain toxic heavy metals and radioactive emissions that contaminate the air, land, and water.
Since there is still no permanent storage facility for waste, it is stored “temporarily” in large cement pools of water or concrete/metal casks on the site where it was produced even, in some cases, after the plant has been decommissioned. As of August 2021, according to the NRC, eight of the nation’s 12 decommissioned commercial reactors had highly radioactive spent fuel rods stored “temporarily” on those sites. Some high-level waste has been “temporarily” stored on reactor sites for more than 60 years.
No nations have resolved the issue, although Finland and Sweden are building deep underground permanent storage repositories. France has employed an extremely toxic process of partial nuclear fuel reprocessing, even as it plans to build six more commercial reactors by 2050. Russia has dumped high-level radioactive waste into the seas.
Temporary storage faces constant threats. Deteriorating containers could lead to accidental leaks. Terrorists could weaponize the waste. Building smaller reactors closer to large cities, as proposed, would greatly increase the magnitude of either accident or weaponization.
The nuclear industry has never factored permanent waste storage into its cost projections for nuclear power generation and has, basically, left the issue to the federal government.