The Long Road to Nuclear Toxic Waste Disposal

With the continued use of nuclear power comes the question: How can nuclear toxic waste be disposed of effectively?

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The discovery of the science behind uranium and enrichment capabilities took place around the same time as World War II, which resulted in the creation of dual-purpose nuclear energy. Its primary purpose was to build an atomic bomb under programs, such as the Manhattan Project. Following the war, President Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” program turned the focus of research towards electricity generation.1 With the continued use of nuclear power came the question: How would nuclear toxic waste be disposed of effectively? There are three types of nuclear waste; high, intermediate, and low-level waste. High-level waste only consists of 3% of nuclear waste2; however, it poses the largest threat. There is not a single functioning high-level waste repository in the world, but there is a project underway in Finland that is leading the initiative.

Assessing the Issue

High-level waste consists of U-235 and the byproduct, plutonium. After the reaction, radioactive energy is slowly released and takes thousands of years to decay and stabilize. Storing the waste in cement containers or submerged in pools, as is done now, is an insufficient temporary solution. These elements release radiation for thousands of years and need permanent storage.

In 1988, the US convened a session with the Board on Radioactive Waste Management that concluded a worldwide consensus on geological isolation of high-level waste as the most ideal storage.3 Progress to permanently store nuclear waste, particularly high-level waste, has been slow due to factors that could alter the future safety of storage, such as vulnerability to sabotage, future activity of groundwater, risk of sea level rise, earthquakes, and climate change.

Social consensus has also been a factor that has had the ability to halt efforts of a US program. The US’ Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, which began in 1987,4 was suspended in 2010 by the DOE due to lack of public support. However, the D.C. Court of Appeals in 2013 demanded the efforts to continue. Nonetheless, construction of Finland’s Onkalo project is underway predominantly due to social consensus. The lack of social consensus is the most substantial difference between the US and Finland’s programs.

Potential Courses of Action

There is no universal solution to storing nuclear waste; however, steps can be taken to ensure a safer disposal of toxic nuclear waste. First, social consensus may be easier to gain if the repository location is near a nuclear reactor because the population is accustomed to the technology, as in Finland. Second, drawing from the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations, there should be “prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities.”5 Multiple locations, particularly in a geographically large country, can potentially reduce the risks of sabotage during transportation. Another facility in the US may also alleviate the population living in Yucca Mountain, which is currently the only community dealing with the nation’s nuclear waste. Third, the Commission recommended creating an organization with the purpose of implementing a waste management program to increase the countries’ likelihood of successfully executing a program.6 Lastly, new technology should be explored to reduce and stabilize waste. For example, thorium does not produce plutonium and is more sustainable than uranium because it produces 250 times more energy per unit.7 Fast reactors of generation IV are more efficient because they extend the use of U-235 by around 200x.8 Exploration of fusion reactors should continue as they have potential to produce a significant amount of energy.

Ultimately, countries should collaborate on technological developments via the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC), an organization that serves as a platform for the peaceful use of nuclear energy and establishes safety standards, security, and non-proliferation.9

Nuclear power is a clean source of energy with zero carbon emissions. However, there are more sustainable ways to produce this energy, which not only will provide more power to the world, but it will also reduce the amount of waste that needs to be stored. Effective storage is the main focus for the world regarding nuclear energy because the most hazardous waste remains undisposed. To ensure the safety of the earth and its inhabitants, scientists and politicians will need to create a repository plan unique to their country to store the waste successfully.


    1. “Outline History of Nuclear Energy.” World Nuclear Association, World Nuclear Association, Mar. 2014.
    2. “What are nuclear wastes and how are they managed?” World Nuclear Association, World Nuclear Association.
    3. National Research Council. “Chapter 2: Management of High-Level Waste: A Historical Overview of the Technical and Policy Challenges.” Disposition of High-Level Radioactive Waste Through Geological Isolation, National Research Council.
    4. “Disposal: Yucca Mountain Repository.” Nuclear Energy Institute, Nuclear Energy Institute.
    5. Hamilton, Lee H., et al. “Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.” U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, January 2012.
    6. Ibid.
    7. “Thorium: The Future Fuel for Nuclear Energy?” Power Technology, Power Technology, 11 July 2011.
    8. Touran, Nick. “What is a fast reactor?” What is Nuclear? What is Nuclear? Sept 2009.
    9. “History.” International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation. International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation.
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