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As U.S. Moves Ahead with Nuclear Power, No Solution for Radioactive Waste

A pair of legal actions against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission raises fresh questions over how and where to store the nation's growing nuclear waste

By Abby Luby

Mar 3, 2011
Three Mile Island nuclear station

President Obama has won wide bipartisan support for his determination to revive American nuclear power — a low-carbon energy solution that electric utilities and conservatives can support.

But a pair of legal actions last month could complicate matters for Washington by forcing the (NRC) to address a longstanding and almost intractable problem: How and where to store the highly radioactive waste.

For many, the separate suits by state attorneys general and environmental groups raise fresh questions over why America is pouring billions into a nuclear renaissance with no long-term strategy for handling waste from the nation's existing facilities.

"The waste problem is the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry," said Daniel Hirsch, president of the , a California-based nuclear watchdog.

On average, each of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors produces 2,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel annually — equivalent to the size and weight of 2,000 SUVs. The toxic brew is radioactive for eons. Plutonium-239, for instance, one of the industry's byproducts, has a half-life of about 24,000 years, according to NRC data.

"The one way to go is to ignore it," Hirsch said of the waste conundrum in an interview. "We'll get the electricity right now, and hope that several generations down the road someone else will figure out where to store [the waste]."

For now, at least, the attorneys general of New York and Vermont, and Connecticut's assistant attorney general, want environmental impact assessments conducted for waste that is stored on-site at nuclear power plants.

AG Lawsuit: Lack of Environmental Analysis Is Illegal

The trio filed a lawsuit on Feb. 16 suit against NRC, charging the agency with violating federal laws by not properly analyzing potential health, safety and environmental threats of the buried waste. The suit targets NRC's recently updated "Waste Confidence Rule."

In December 2010, NRC changed the rule, doubling the amount of time that waste can be stored on-site from 30 years after a plant goes out of service to 60 years. Now, it appears the agency might double that again.

In an interview with SolveClimate News, NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan said a plan was underway to allow the high-level waste to be stored on-site for over 120 years.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who announced the lawsuit just miles from the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Westchester, N.Y., said citizens deserve to know if these rule changes carry risks.

"Our communities deserve a thorough review of the environmental, public health, and safety risks such a move would present," . "This is not just a safety and environmental issue, but also one that could affect property values." 

Entergy: 'No Evidence' Storage is Unsafe

At Indian Point, one of the oldest reactors in the country, 30 tons of enriched uranium radioactive waste is produced every 18 months, most of which is crammed into 40-foot deep pools at each of the two reactors.

Currently, each pool holds about 1,000 tons of radioactive waste. An additional 1,500 tons are stored in 15 dry casks on an open tarmac surrounded by barbed wire and a surveillance tower.

Across the country, 50,000 metric tons of waste was produced through the end of 2003, according to a by the National Research Council. The nonprofit that by 2015 there will be over 75,000 metric tons of radioactive waste stored at temporary sites.

Indian Point will close in 2035, if it gets relicensed. Under the new waste storage rule, spent fuel would be stored there until 2095, and could remain on-site well into the 22nd century if the rule extends to 120 years.

Need to go solar and wind power only

There is a massive logical inconsistency by those who, on one hand, spout the myth that solar farms and wind farms cannot provide all the electricity the world needs because it takes too much work, too many people to build these farms, but then spout the idea that nuclear reactors provide jobs.

Yes - jobs nobody wants to take, such as cleaning up inevitable disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima! All nuclear reactors will decay with time. It is obvious, especially by comments one sees all over the internet and in media, that absolutely ZERO thought has gone into dealing with decaying reactors, and harnessing the necessary and willing personnel at those times, by the pro-nukers.

No - if a massively complex and labor-intensive and hugely CO2-producing process such as building uranium-processing plants, transporting that uranium by train or truck, building the reactors, and decommissioning the reactors adds jobs to the economy,

then logically the labor-intensive task of building sufficiently many solar and wind farms to provide all our electric demand also adds jobs to the economy. The difference is: we will be able to fill those jobs for solar and wind much more easily.

It is only the faith-based religion of nuclear power that prevents the world from doing the right thing: squeezing every bit of electric demand from solar and wind power that we can, until there are no alternatives.

And, finally, for those who still oppose getting as much electricity from solar and wind before we entertain ideas such as nuclear power - all the electricity in the world will do a thing for non-electric cars. So, you might as well shut the nuclear power plants down along with the solar and wind farms until the world gets serious about outlawing the production and use of all gas-powered cars, which could have and should have been done 20 years ago. We've known about finite amounts of oil on this planet since oil was discovered.

CFCs are not necessary to

CFCs are not necessary to nuclear power.   Canadian CANDU reacts natural, un (0.7% U-235) oxide as fuel.   See:

The point is not necessarily to go to CANDU reactors but that CFCs can be designed out of the process.   


Nuclear power's carbon footprint is the smallest of any source of electricity.   See the book: "Power to Save the World; The Truth About Nuclear Energy" by Gwyneth Cravens, 2007   Finally a truthful book about nuclear power.   This book is very easy to read and understand.  Gwyneth Cravens is a former anti-nuclear activist.

Page 13 has a chart of greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production.   Nuclear power produces less greenhouse gas [CO2] than any other source, including coal, natural gas, hydro, solar and wind.   Building wind turbines and towers also involve industrial processes such as concrete and steel making.   


Wind turbines produce a total of 58 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour.   


Nuclear power plants produce a total of 30 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, the lowest.   


Coal plants produce the most, between 966 and 1306 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour.   


Solar power produces between 100 and 280 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour.   


Hydro power produces 240 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour.   


Natural gas produces between 439 and 688 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour.   


Remember the total is the sum of direct emissions from burning fuel and indirect emissions from the life cycle, which means the industrial processes required to build it.   Again, nuclear comes in the lowest.   Nuclear would produce even less CO2 per kilowatt hour if the safety were lowered to the same level as other sources of electricity.   Switching from coal to nuclear is a 97% reduction in electricity's 40% of our CO2 output.


Nuclear power plant cost:   $30 Million + $30 million to install:    I received the following from Hyperion sales:


From: Jim Jones      at


Date: Tuesday, February 3, 2009 2:27 PM

Subject: Re: $.05 to .06 per KWh


Assume HPM costs $30M and plant side doubles it:


$60M divided by 25,000kw  = $2,400/kw

$2,400/kw divided by 5 years = $480/KWyr

$480/KWyr divided by 8760 hours = $.0547945/KWhr (Call it 5 and half cents per KWhr)




$60M divided by 20,000 homes = $3,000/home

$3,000/home divided by 5 years = $600/home/year

$600/home/year divided by 12 months  = $50/home/month (How’s that for an electric bill?)




There are 2 options for spent

There are 2 options for spent nuclear fuel.   It is clearly NOT "waste."   

1.  Recycle.   France recycles fuel now.   We recycled fuel in the old days.   We could have our fuel recycled in France.

The newspaper makes the usual errors, such as calling spent reactor fuel "weapons grade" which it certainly was not.   

We don't recycle nuclear fuel because it is valuable and people steal it.   The place it went that it wasn't supposed to go to was Israel.   This happened in a small town near Pittsburgh, PA circa 1970.   A company called Numec was in the business of reprocessing nuclear fuel.   I almost took a job there, designing a nuclear battery for a heart pacemaker.   [A nuclear battery would have the advantage of lasting many times as long as any other battery, eliminating many surgeries to replace batteries.]     Other uses for radioactive elements from spent fuel:  cancer treatment, such as radioactive "grains" to put in your cancerous prostate.

Numec did NOT have a reactor.   Numec "lost" a quantity of spent fuel.   It wound up in Israel.   The Israelis have fueled  their nuclear reactors by stealing nuclear "waste."   It could work for any other country, such as Iran or the United States.   

It is only when you don't have access to nuclear "waste" that you have to do the difficult process of enriching uranium.   Numec is no longer in business.   They paid a $930,000 fine.   Private corporations must not be allowed to reprocess [recycle] spent fuel because the temptation/profit in diverting spent fuel to other places is too great.   My solution would be to reprocess the fuel at a Government Owned Government Operated [GOGO] facility.   At a GOGO plant, bureaucracy and the multiplicity of ethnicity and religion would disable the transportation of uranium to Israel or to any unauthorized place.   Nothing heavier than a secret would get out.

 The problem is political:   The Republicans think GOGO plants are socialist/communist, which is nonsense.   A COCO [Contractor Owned Contractor Operated] plant can be the low bidder by being a front for Israel or some other country.   

2.   Use Fourth Generation reactors.   Generation 4 reactors have several advantages, such as being impossible to melt down and being capable of consuming all of the fuel without recycling.   The Modular High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor (MHTGCR) using helium as both coolant and working fluid can theoretically exceed 50% thermal efficiency.   That compares to 38% for other nuclear or 25% for coal.

Best Storage Solution

The best solution for radioactive waste I ever heard was seabed burial in a geologically stable area:


The present nuclear tecnniques are okay, but I personally prefer the thorium based reactors that were never pursued further. Supposedly, it would also let you "burn" waste from tradiontal reactors too.



The system we employ now is

The system we employ now is kind of like filling up your gas tank, driving until half the gas is gone, putting the old gas in a storage tank and then refilling the gas tank. Half our nuclear fuel is getting put in storage. Because of this alone it makes sense to reprocess fuel.

It also makes sense because it is easier to deal with each fraction according to its danger and life than it is to call all of it high level.

There two problems that are still not being addressed, which are: even if we reprocess fuel we still have a bunch of very poisonous junk that will have to be stored for a very long time somewhere very safe, and the nuclear industry is one of the worst industries when maintaining control and responsibility for the dangerous products produced. Its methods may have gotten better lately, but Republicans are the first to take something like this and deregulate it and get the EPA out so the companies who do it can make tons of money while dumping high level waste into our aquifers.

Reprocessing might be a good idea if done right, but when we look at what the Republicans just did to our economy, we need to be very careful, especially when putting this into the most irresponsible teabagging state in the nation.

Ok so USEC's enrichment

Ok so USEC's enrichment releases less than 1/10 of the greenhouse gases as a coal plant, nice. The radioactive waste is smaller in quantity than from a coal plant, and it's contained rather than blown out a smokestack. Nice again. And huge loan guarantees are necessary because the costs are inflated by decades-old, fear-based regulation that is not even relevant to new reactor designs. Sounds like politicians and activists breaking your legs so they can feel good about handing out crutches.

High Level Radioactive Waste

The world is awash in plutonium, one of the deadliest, longest lived radionuclides.  In this country, unlike France which has few natural resources, it is cheaper to process new fuel from ore than to reprocess spent fuel rods Reprocessing is not cost effective and was banned in the US because of the dangers of proliferation. Dangers which still exist on a world wide basis. And it is reprocessing - not recycling because you can only use a third of the spent fuel rods and that only once. The process leaves more concentrated, toxic waste that still needs a geologic depository. As for China, and their purported miracle cure, believe it when they publish the details.  Something they have so far declined to do.  The physics of nuclear waste are the same, no matter the country, and it is deadly

Gaseous diffusion plant due to shut down in 2012

The statistics published regarding USEC's enrichment facility are just about obsolete. The plant uses 1950s vintage technology that has been vastly altered and improved in the past few decades.

Just last year, a company called LES started operating a new centrifuge enrichment facility in Eunice, NM. The partners in that venture include Urenco, a European company that has been operating centrifuges for several decades. Their technology is one of the greatest examples of energy efficiency improvements - it reduces the amount of electricity required to perform the same level of enrichment by a factor of 20.

I visited Georges Besse II, a new centrifuge facility in France last summer. It is replacing a gaseous diffusion facility on the same site that is similar to the one that USEC will be shutting down in 2012 or 2013. When it is fully operational, it will consume about 55 MWe instead of the 2700 MWe of the facility it is replacing.

Centrifuges also do not release any CFCs. 

One more thing for any mathematically challenged readers. If 150 tons of CFCs are released and if CFCs are 1,500 times more potent than CO2, that means that the CFCs released are equivalent to 225,000 tons of CO2, which is less than one weeks worth of emissions from a single 1000 MWe coal fired power plant. 

Rod Adams

Publisher, Atomic Insights

2,000 tons per year TOTAL, not per plant

At least one number in your article is off by a factor of 100. The total mass of used nuclear fuel generated by all 104 reactors in the United States is about 2,000 tons per year. The accumulated mass is about 55,000 metric tons after generating massive quantities of electricity for the past several decades.

It boggles my mind why some people insist that an industry that knows the current location of every kilogram of used material it has ever produced is said to have a "waste issue", while its competitive energy sources get away with avoiding all responsibility for dumping million of tons of waste per day into our shared atmosphere and water sources.

The half life of many of the contaminants dumped by coal, oil and natural gas combustion plants is infinite - it NEVER decays. It also does not have a remote chance of someday entering the environment if its engineered containers deteriorate and if future generations dig deep holes into the ground - it is dumped constantly into the environment through designed "leaks" called smokestacks.


We are going to end up recycling the waste.

We are currently recycling nuclear bombs.

About 50% of the fuel in US nuclear reactors are recycled nuclear bombs.

Once the bombs are recycled the various recycling facilities will need a new product to sell.


I see we're doing scare

I see we're doing scare stories, unbalanced, without a review of the very active movement to convert so-called "nuclear waste"  to carbon-free electricity and heat.

Kinda stupid, but so much like the climate change deniers. Do you ever consider how silly it looks to rail against AGW deniers while you're pretending solutions to the waste problem are quite feasible, except for innumerate ideologues?

Go, and sin no more! 

Nuclear wastes safe storage solution

The US DoE, has knowledge of a simple way to safely store all types of nuclear wastes!!

Nuclear Era Being Wasted?

The United States ushered in the nuclear era.

Due to widespread misinformation, we have squandered the beautiful potential of this cleaner, safer, and virtually carbon-free technology that can be harnessed on a grand scale.

Please read the link
 or the summary:
1) Reprocessing nuclear fuel will eliminate 90% of the storage needed for high-level nuclear waste.
2) Nations can purchase fuel from the international nuclear fuel bank, limiting the potential for weapons production.

3) Very harmful and more radiation is "legally" released by fossil fuel combustion, which is currently our only large-scale source of energy.

Nuclear power will:
A) provide safer and cleaner energy,
B) create jobs,
C) keep our trade deficit more balanced, and,
D) put more foreign policy decisions back in our hands with every kW we make in the USA.

Storage?? How about like the

Storage?? How about like the Chinese we start developing LFTR. The storage isnt an issue as we can burn just about ALL of it! There are other forms of producing power using nuclear.

High Level Radioactive Waste

The world is awash in plutonium, one of the deadliest, longest lived radionuclides.  In this country, unlike France which has few natural resources, it is cheaper to process new fuel from ore than to reprocess spent fuel rods Reprocessing is not cost effective and was banned in the US because of the dangers of proliferation. Dangers which still exist on a world wide basis. And it is reprocessing - not recycling because you can only use a third of the spent fuel rods and that only once. The process leaves more concentrated, toxic waste that still needs a geologic depository. As for China, and their purported miracle cure, believe it when they publish the details.  Something they have so far declined to do.  The physics of nuclear waste are the same, no matter the country, and it is deadly.

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