"To seek out that which was lost..."

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The majority of high-level radioactive waste is the fuel from the hot core of commercial nuclear power plants. This irradiated fuel is the most intensely radioactive material on the planet, and gives a lethal dose of radiation if unshielded. It accounts for 95% of the radioactivity generated in the last 50 years from all sources, including nuclear weapons production. Uranium is processed into fuel rods and loaded into nuclear power reactors where it undergoes the nuclear fission reaction. After several years, when removed from the reactor core, the fuel is about 1 million times more radioactive than when it was loaded. This irradiated fuel is currently stored in water pools at the reactor site.

The increase in radioactivity is due to the formation of intensely radioactive elements known as fission products, such as cesium and strontium, resulting from the physical splitting of uranium-235 atoms. Heavier elements known as transuranics are also formed, including plutonium. Each 1000 megawatt nuclear power plant produces about 500 pounds of plutonium a year, and about 30 metric tons of high-level waste.


The half-life of a radioactive element is the amount of time it takes for one-half of the quantity of that element to decay-either to a stable form, or to another radioactive element in a "decay chain." After ten half-lives, one thousandth of the original concentration is left; after 20 half lives, one millionth. Generally 10--20 half lives is called the hazardous life of the waste. Example: Plutonium-239 which is in irradiated fuel, has a half-life of 24,400 years. It is dangerous for a quarter million years, or 12,000 human generations. As it decays, uranium-235 is generated; half-life:

710,000 years. Thus the hazard of irradiated fuel will continue for millions of years. This material must be isolated from contaminating or irradiating living things for this long.


Radioactive waste classification in the U.S. is misleading and needs reassessment. The regulatory definition of high-level radioactive waste includes only irradiated fuel and the liquid and sludge from reprocessing fuel to recover plutonium (including solids resulting from stabilization of reprocessing wastes). Reprocessing of commercial fuel proved not to be economical or technically feasible in the U.S.. There are components and other wastes from nuclear reactors that become intensely radioactive, can deliver a lethal dose, and yet are regulated separately as "low-level" waste.


Irradiated fuel makes up only about 1% of the total volume of all radioactive wastes generated in the U.S., but it contains about 95% of the radioactivity. As of 1994 there was a cumulative total of 29,700 metric tons of irradiated fuel from commercial nuclear power generation in the United States, nearly all of it at the reactor sites. This fuel contained approximately 25,000,000,000 curies of radioactivity.

A curie is a large unit: 2,224,000,000,000 (over 2 trillion) radioactive emissions, or 'counts' per minute. Natural radiation measured with a simple Geiger counter is typically between 2 and 20 counts per minute. Each of these emissions has the potential to initiate a cancer.

Some of the radioactive elements decay quickly, but even after 1000 years, there will be 1,752 curies in each ton of irradiated fuel.


On-reactor-site fuel pools hold the cumulative total of high-level waste that has been generated by the reactor since starting operations. Fuel pools were not designed for more than temporary storage. Many utilities have consolidated the storage racks to hold the irradiated fuel more densely. There are many hazards associated with fuel pools, including the potential for loss of coolant which could result in spontaneous combustion of the fuel, or in some circumstances, nuclear meltdown of the pool.

To date, all plans for off-site storage of this material have failed. Eight reactors nationally have reached pool capacity and installed on-site dry cask storage. These concrete and metal containers had no full-scale testing prior to their first installation, and have been in place only a few years. The useful life of a dry cask is measured in decades, not millennia, so these are not long-term "solutions" to high-level waste. Dry cask installation substantially changes the land-use of the site. The majority of nuclear reactors are sited on bodies of water or on top of water-rich ground.

Between 1991 and 1995, the program to site an interim dump for high-level waste was the Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) program, under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). This campaign was spearheaded by the Nuclear Waste Negotiator (whose authorization expired in 1994). The effort to find a volunteer community to take a high-level waste dump showed that where democracy is functioning, communities reject proposals that threaten their homes and health. More than 30 MRS proposals were defeated by local communities between 1991 and 1994. On January 31, 1995, members of New Mexico's Mescalero Apache Tribe voted to reject a utility-sponsored dump that grew out of the MRS program. This was a blow to the nuclear industry, many of whose officials believed the proposed Mescalero project was their best hope of obtaining an "interim" radioactive waste dump.


Multi-Purpose Canisters (MPCs) are a new program of the Department of Energy to standardize dry storage of waste. A small number of canister styles are expected to serve for storage, transport and disposal. There is concern that in trying to maximize the versatility of the MPC, the engineering for each separate function may not be sufficiently robust. The large rail cask design will hold about 21,000 pounds of irradiated fuel, (about 20 times more than existing, inadequate shipping casks) and yet will not have any dramatically increased safety features. Casks this large will carry massive quantities of nuclear fuel, increasing concerns about criticality (uncontrolled nuclear reaction) under some accident conditions.


The term "disposal" simply does not apply to materials that will remain hazardous virtually forever. The English Channel did not exist 5 thousand years ago, and within the last 10,000 years, a volcano near Yucca Mountain erupted. Recognizing Earth as a constantly changing, dynamic system is new to Western science. There is no place on Earth where one can confidently predict that if we were to place the high-level waste in a hole, it would remain isolated.

Yucca Mountain, NV is the site specified for study as a possible repository in the 1987 amendments to the NWPA. This site should be rejected as unsuitable since it is classified in the highest risk category for earthquakes. Further, it will not retain radioactive gases, such as Carbon-14, resulting from radioactive decay, and thus could not meet the original repository standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. It also sits on top of the drinking water source for Las Vegas.

If all U.S. reactors continue to operate through their current license period, the inventory of high-level irradiated fuel will more than double.

References Available upon Request

Prepared by Mary Olson, January, 1995

Nuclear Information and Resource Service

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