Environment and Ecology

Environmental Challenges

How is nuclear waste stored?

Most spent nuclear fuel in the United States is safely stored in specially designed pools at individual reactor sites around the country. If pool capacity is reached, licensees may move toward use of above-ground dry storage casks. The three low-level radioactive waste disposal sites are Barnwell, South Carolina; Hanford, Washington; and Envirocare, Utah. Each site accepts low-level radioactive waste from specific regions of the country, but only Envirocare uses above-ground storage.

Most high-level nuclear waste has been stored in double-walled stainless-steel tanks surrounded by 3 feet (1 meter) of concrete. The current best storage method, developed by the French in 1978, is to incorporate the waste into a special molten glass mixture, then enclose it in a steel container and bury it in a special pit. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended in 1987, specified that high-level radioactive waste would be disposed of underground in a deep geologic repository. Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was chosen as the single site to be developed for disposal of high-level radioactive waste. On July 23, 2002, President George W. Bush signed House Joint Resolution 87, allowing the Department of Energy to establish a repository in Yucca Mountain to safely store nuclear waste. However, some scientists still expressed concerns about the estimates of how long it would take for rainwater and snow to infiltrate the mountain and corrode the containers.


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