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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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The Growing Problem of Spent Nuclear Fuel

Posted on October 31, 2012

By John W. Rachow, MD PhD

Nuclear reactors apply advanced engineering and radioactive materials for an exceedingly simple task:  to boil water.  The heat generated by radioactive fuel heats water to boiling; the resulting steam drives turbines that turn electric generators.  Two types of radioactive fuel are employed in this process.  Fresh uranium dioxide nuclear fuel is approximately four percent fissile uranium-235 and 96 percent non-fissile uranium-238.  It has relatively low radioactivity, can be fused into ceramic pellets, packed into thin metal tubes, and can be easily handled.  However, when arranged in assemblies of multiple rods in close proximity, the neutrons from the fission of the U-235 becomes dense enough to sustain a chain reaction releasing tremendous heat and producing radioactive waste products.  It is also possible to use mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel, as was the case of the #3 reactor at Fukushima.  This fuel is inherently more dangerous and difficult to handle at all stages of its lifecycle.  Fresh MOX fuel contains plutonium-239; when spent, it has more plutonium and other transuranics than normal uranium-based nuclear fuel and much higher thermal activity.[i]

Partially and fully spent nuclear fuel is extremely hot and radioactive.  According to a General Accounting Office report,

One of the most hazardous materials made by man is spent nuclear fuel—the used fuel periodically removed from reactors in nuclear power plants. Without protective shielding, the fuel’s intense radioactivity can kill a person exposed directly to it within minutes or cause cancer in those who receive smaller doses. As the fuel ages, it begins to cool and becomes less radiologically dangerous—some of the radioactive particles decay quickly, within days or weeks, while others exist for many thousands of years.[ii]

Safe management of spent fuel rods is a major challenge. Because the U.S. has no permanent repository for high level nuclear waste, the 103 active nuclear power reactors in the U.S. store their spent fuel rod assemblies in on-site cooling ponds, 40 feet deep, steel-lined and with concrete walls up to six feet thick.  The spent rods must remain in cooling pools for five to ten years under least 20 feet of actively circulating water.  Loss of cooling water to a cooling pool is extremely dangerous, as it can lead to an explosion and catastrophic release or radiation, as was demonstrated in Fukushima. 

A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory fact sheet states that after 10 years in a cooling pool, the surface radioactivity of a spent fuel assembly is still about 10,000 rem/hour.[iii]   To understand the danger that poses to health, consider that a 500-rem dose delivered to a whole person in a single exposure is fatal.   Close proximity to a single 10-year-old spent fuel assembly would deliver a fatal whole-body radiation dose in about three minutes.

After at least five years in cooling pools, fuel rod assemblies can be packed into massive sealed dry casks for safer storage.   A typical dry cask is nine feet in diameter and 20 feet tall, with walls of steel and concrete for radiation shielding.   Each dry cask contains 20 to 50 spent fuel assemblies.[iv]  The sealed casks are pressurized with an inert gas that circulates passively through cooling fins to dissipate the heat generated by the contained spent fuel.[v]  Casks weigh upward of 120 tons and are not designed for transport to off-site locations.  Should a deep geological repository for spent fuel, or any other long-term storage solution, ever be developed, the radioactive assemblies would have to be unloaded from dry casks underwater and transferred to smaller hardened transfer casks for safe transport.   In any foreseeable scenario, transportation to a permanent repository will be a daunting undertaking. 

Today there are 103 active nuclear power reactors in the U.S.  They generate 2,000 metric tons of spent nuclear waste per year and to date have accumulated 71,862 tons of spent fuel, according to industry data.[vi]  Of that total, 54,696 tons are stored in cooling pools and only 17,166 tons in the relatively safer dry cask storage. 

The toxic “lifespan” of spent nuclear fuel is about one million years.[vii] Dry casks are designed for about 100 years of spent fuel storage.  Because a permanent solution has not been found in half a century of trying, owners of nuclear power plants are essentially required to manage this most hazardous of all man-made wastes forever.  If new nuclear power plants are built, accumulation of this million-year waste will accelerate.  Not only do the costs of storage become effectively unlimited; in addition, the risk of a devastating cooling pool accident becomes steadily more likely.

[i] John Deutch and Ernest J. Moniz, et al., Massachusetts Institute of Technology Report, The Future of Nuclear Power:  An Interdisciplinary MIT Study,  2003, 180 pages, accessed online April 16, 2011. 

[ii] U.S. General Accounting Office Report, Spent Nuclear Fuel: Options Exist to Further Enhance Security, July 2003, 50 pages, accessed online March 22, 2011. 

[iii]  U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Backgrounder on  Radioactive Waste, 5 pages, accessed online April 15, 2011. 

[iv]  U.S. General Accounting Office Report, Nuclear Regulatory Commission: NRC Needs to Do More to Ensure that Power Plants Are Effectively Controlling Spent Nuclear Fuel, April 2005, 42 pages, accessed online March 19, 2011. 

[v]  John Deutch and Ernest J. Moniz, et al., Massachusetts Institute of Technology Report, The Future of Nuclear Power:  An Interdisciplinary MIT Study,  2003, 180 pages, accessed online April 16, 2011. 

[vi] Associated Press, Spent nuclear fuel throughout US stored by state, Forbes, March 22, 2011, accessed online April 16,2011. 

[vii] John Deutch and Ernest J. Moniz, et al., Massachusetts Institute of Technology Report, The Future of Nuclear Power:  An Interdisciplinary MIT Study,  2003, 180 pages, accessed online April 16, 2011. 



Mike Dzurisin said ..


July 25, 2016
T. L. Davis said ..

There must be a global push to make nuclear FUSION practical; witness the German "Stellarator" that is containing plasma for longer and longer times. We can pitch all this radioactive trash into the National Strategic De(Su)pository, build 10 foot thick blast walls and seal it up forever. Everyone drives a Tesla roadster ...

April 14, 2016
Migpgston said ..

Why can we put them in the north pole where they can be cool by the temperature of the cold water for ever?

March 12, 2016
volta said ..

we have really done it this time,what if we just started polluting space with it like we are polluting our earth every day just look around you the side of the roads your front yard what are we doing to ourselves

January 11, 2016
Michael DeMent said ..

The issue of these dangerous fuel assemblies presumes local governments will forever remain stable-intact to forever manage neverending cooling & storage, presumes anarchy will never ever permit lacking security oversight whereby terrorists use this chance to steal radioactive materials, presumes war-free environments over a thousands of years will never bring on enemies to target nuclear facilities with accurate conventional/nuclear missilery, presumes we can eventually solve our 50 year quagmire on where to store the spend assemblies, presumes once we do find storage sites that this currently stable ground will remain geologically stable for the thousand year storage-- all to boil water. It outrageous and foolish, and there has to be a better way. Imagine how much of this hazardous stuff will pile up all over the world as we build more of these nuclear power facilities with the expect presumed perfect conditions to always remain perfect for a thousand years of safety for us & our children.

January 1, 2016
Russell Lowes said ..

Grace, Reprocessing only eliminates about 1% of the nuclear waste through "burning" waste in a second run. It costs over 2 times fuel derived from natural uranium. See for an overview of reprocessing. If reprocessing is maxed out technologically, it could increase the burn rate to about 1.4% but the cost would be even much higher than with currently practiced reprocessing in France.

December 4, 2012
John Rachow said ..

Grace, Any scenario that proposes to use spent nuclear fuel as fuel involves very expensive, dangerous reprocessing and in the process creates multiple high level liquid readioactive waste streams that are extremely difficult to then eliminate. Proposed designs along the lines of fast breeder reactors or molten salt reactors that could effectively use reprocessed spent fuel have never been successfully built and run on a commercial scale. An this is not for lack of trying.

December 4, 2012
Grace Adams said ..

In the long run, I suspect it might be safer to use reactors that can make good use of the fuel left in spent fuel rods from light water nuclear reactors to reduce the total volume of spent nuclear fuel rods to be stored for at least 3,000 years to get them down to the same level of radioactivity as the ore from which they were made. I realize that spent nuclear fuel is chemically hazardous forever because both uranium and even the final decay products like lead are chemically toxic forever.

November 30, 2012

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