Nuclear Waste Issues in the United States

By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow

The problem of what to do with nuclear waste is largely unsolved in America. Many types of radioactive waste require disposal for tens of thousands of years, and the United States only has one facility engaged in permanent disposal of nuclear waste: the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which permanently stores certain forms of radioactive waste generated by the Department of Energy during the research and production of nuclear weapons.

When it comes to highly radioactive nuclear waste, which primarily consists of spent fuel produced in nuclear reactor operation, the lack of options for permanent disposal is even more severe. Although the United States contains more than 90,000 metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste, the federal government has been unable to implement any strategy for its permanent disposal. Yucca Mountain in Nevada has long been proposed as the site of a potential permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste, but opposition to the project on a number of grounds has prevented the facility from moving forward.


Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (New Mexico)

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico is the only permanent in the United States. WIPP is licensed to accept waste generated from Department of Energy (DOE) defense activities that is suited for permanent disposal, including clothing and equipment contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements. The WIPP facility first opened in 1999. It is operated and managed by contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership.

Before being transported to WIPP, nuclear waste is packaged at the DOE facility where it was produced (typically a national lab or other facility engaged with researching or producing nuclear weapons). The waste is placed in large drums that are designed to securely contain radiation, then transported by truck to WIPP in New Mexico. The drums are then packed into larger containers called overpacks. Finally, the overpacks containing the drums of nuclear waste are permanently stored in rooms more than 2,000 feet below ground.

When WIPP is full, the site will be decommissioned and sealed off from access. Over time, the salt deposit that encompasses the underground facility will shift and eventually collapse, safely and permanently encasing the disposed waste in a water-tight chunk of salt.


2014 radiological release incident

In February 2014, WIPP was shut down for almost three years after an accident at the site resulted in the release of radiation. The radiological release was traced to a single waste drum, which was packaged incorrectly at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). According to the accident investigation performed by DOE, the drum in question had been packaged with organic kitty litter, which was intended to act as an absorbing material. The organic compounds in the kitty litter reacted with some of the drum’s waste contents, eventually causing an explosion. The error was apparently caused by unclear instructions about which type of kitty litter to use — inorganic, mineral-based kitty litter is commonly used in the waste drums as an absorbent material.

Although the error causing the drum to rupture took place at LANL, the DOE accident investigation also cited a number of safety issues at WIPP itself. In particular, WIPP’s air filtration system failed to fully contain the radiological release within the facility.

The February 2014 accident and shutdown of WIPP ended up being very expensive, with analysis by the Los Angeles Times putting the estimated long-term cost at around $2 billion dollars. The site was formally reopened on January 9, 2017, and waste shipments to the facility resumed in April 2017.


In late May, misaligned waste drum causes brief evacuation

WIPP was evacuated on May 24, 2018, after workers noticed that one of the drums containing nuclear waste was “tilting out” of its position in the storage facility. There were no injuries, and no radiological release was detected. As of June 2, normal operations have resumed at the facility.


In June, work begins on new ventilation system to speed up waste disposal

On June 14, DOE began work on a new ventilation system at WIPP. According to reporting by the Associated Press, the new ventilation system will improve airflow in the facility and allow for waste to be stored in the repository more quickly. The system is expected to cost $288 million by official estimates, and is slated to be completed in 2021.

Once re-opened in 2017, the pace of storing waste in the underground repository was slowed after the 2014 radiation incident due to limited ventilation. The new system, called the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System, will increase the availability and flow of air in the underground portion of WIPP. According to Todd Schrader, manager of DOE’s local field office overseeing the site, the new system will allow for more flexibility in the operation of the site.

The decision to construct the new ventilation system was approved by DOE in May. According to a DOE press release, the increased availability of air using the new system will allow for waste disposal activities to be carried out simultaneously with mining and maintenance operations. The capacity to carry out those various activities simultaneously is an important step as DOE works to increase the rate of waste shipments to WIPP. DOE expects approximately 300 shipments of waste to arrive at WIPP in 2018, a significant jump from the 133 shipments delivered during 2017.


As WIPP faces a potential excess of waste for disposal, officials look to change how volume of stored waste is calculated

WIPP is the only active permanent repository for nuclear waste in the United States. That alone creates a serious problem: the amount of nuclear waste in the United States requiring permanent disposal significantly exceeds what WIPP can contain. In the long term, it will be necessary to develop other repositories to permanently dispose of nuclear waste (like Yucca Mountain).

However, even in the short term, WIPP is facing a potential excess of material designated for disposal in its underground facility. Under the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Land Withdrawal Act of 1992, the official capacity of WIPP is 6.2 million cubic feet, or approximately 175,570 cubic meters. As of June 2018, a total of 93,500 cubic meters of waste was already disposed at the facility, and another 78,000 cubic meters of DOE waste is officially slated for disposal at WIPP. On top of that, a presentation by DOE official Todd Schrader mentioned that another 19,000 cubic meters of waste is “potentially” destined for underground disposal at WIPP, pending the “resolution of a regulatory or other constraint.”

The “potential waste” mentioned by Schrader may include the plutonium that is currently held at the MOX fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina. DOE is working to shut down the MOX project, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry has stated that the department intends to transport that plutonium to WIPP for dilution and disposal.

Altogether, there is 190,500 cubic meters of waste that is either already disposed of at WIPP or likely to be sent there for disposal. That amount would exceed the legal volume limit by about 15,000 cubic meters.

To address the potential overage, DOE and its contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership are seeking to change how the volume of waste disposed in WIPP is legally calculated. Currently, the volume of disposed waste is calculated based on the volume of the outermost waste containers that are stored underground (i.e., the volume of the overpacks, which themselves contain drums of nuclear waste). In order to lower the calculated and reported volume of disposed waste, officials have proposed an alternative method of calculating waste volume that counts only the volume of the waste containers stored inside the overpacks, rather than the volume of the overpacks themselves.

Under the calculation system currently in place, the volume of disposed waste at WIPP is over half of the legal capacity based on the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act. If only the volume of the inner waste containers is counted, the volume of disposed waste is only about a third of the legal limit.

In January 2018, the Nuclear Waste Partnership submitted a permit modification request to the New Mexico Environment Department regarding the alternative method of waste volume calculation. The request specifically sought to change how waste volume was calculated and reported with respect to the legal limitations under WIPP Land Withdrawal Act, and noted that the current approach to volume calculation would remain in place when comparing the volume of stored waste to the physical volume capacity of the underground disposal rooms.

The New Mexico Environment Department responded in June with a Technical Incompleteness Determination requesting more details about the proposed change and its implementation. DOE submitted a formal response to the incompleteness determination in mid-July. In that response, DOE argues that the Land Withdrawal Act did not intend to count the “void space” (the space between waste drums stored inside a larger overpack) when calculating the volume of waste stored in WIPP.


Latest: New Mexico Environment Department seeks public comments on modified WIPP permit

On August 6, the New Mexico Environment Department issued a draft version of the modified permit, as well as a fact sheet summarizing the proposed changes to the permit for public review. The draft permit contains the changes requested by DOE. The period for public comments on the draft permit will run from August 6 to September 20. After that, the New Mexico Environment Department will review the public feedback and move forward with issuing the permit, potentially with further modifications.


Yucca Mountain (Nevada)

Yucca Mountain in Nevada is the site of a proposed deep geologic repository for nuclear waste, but political issues and roadblocks over the last three decades have prevented the project from moving forward. There have been some recent congressional efforts to revive the Yucca Mountain project, but these have not been able to overcome political opposition, and the project remains inactive. Since the project began in the early 1980s, the government has spent about $15 billion since 1983 on studying the potential repository site.


Background: overview of Yucca Mountain project

The repository planned for Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is intended to permanently store high-level radioactive waste consisting mainly of spent nuclear fuel produced by commercial nuclear power plants. In 1987, amendments to the Nuclear Policy Waste Act directed DOE to focus solely on Yucca Mountain as the potential site of a future permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste. DOE determined in 2002 that Yucca Mountain would be a technical suitable site for the repository, and Congress passed a resolution approving the site selection the same year.

However, the proposed waste repository drew significant opposition in Nevada both from residents and political leaders. Nevada residents and political leadership have both expressed concerns about the long-term safety of the repository. The 1987 amendment to the Nuclear Policy Waste Act, which eliminated all other possible repository sites from DOE consideration long before the department officially approved Yucca Mountain, is also a source of frustration in Nevada, where it is commonly referred to as the “screw Nevada bill.” The Western Shoshone people, for whom the mountain holds traditional significance, also objected to the project and expressed concerns about the effects it could have on the health and safety of their community. Although DOE continued to pursue licensing for the project for several years after 2002, the Yucca Mountain repository was deemed “off the table” by then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in 2009, and work on the project came to a stop over the next few years.

With the Yucca Mountain repository project experiencing repeated delays and eventual cancellation, the United States has failed to identify a long-term solution for the storage and disposal of the high-level nuclear waste generated by reactor operation. The majority of such waste is stored at the location where it was generated using dry cask storage. After spent fuel is removed from a reactor during refueling, it is placed in a deep pool of water to cool for several years. Once it has cooled enough and lost some of its radioactivity, the waste is packaged into dry casks and stored on-site indefinitely. There are over 60 dry cask storage sites across 34 states. Those facilities store the majority of the more than 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste in the United States, including nearly 80,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel.


This year: congressional efforts to revive repository project die in the Senate

In May, the House of Representatives voted to approve a bill that would again amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and expedite the licensing process for the Yucca Mountain repository. The bill would also direct the Department of Energy to begin consolidating and temporarily storing spent nuclear fuel, potentially including the use of private storage initiatives, while a permanent repository is being developed and constructed. The bill’s passage in the House was reported on by several news sources, including USA Today and World Nuclear News. After reaching the Senate, the bill was referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and no action has been taken on it since mid-May. In a statement, Senator Dean Heller (R-Nevada) called the bill “dead on arrival” in the Senate and promised to block the proposal “at every procedural turn.”

The House of Representatives also attempted to revitalize the Yucca Mountain project in two spending bills this year, but the Senate rejected the funding in both cases. In the case of both bills, Sen. Heller took an active role in pushing the Senate to reject any funding for the Yucca Mountain project.

The House version of the Fiscal Year 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill fulfilled the Trump Administration’s funding request for the Yucca Mountain project plus an additional $100 million, but no Yucca Mountain funding was included in the Senate version of the bill. The bill is currently in conference, with the two chambers resolving differences.

Additionally, the House version of the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act would have authorized $30 million for “Yucca Mountain and interim storage.” That authorization of funding was rejected in the Senate version and was not present in the final version of the bill, which was signed into law on August 13.