Sixty Thousand Tons of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Stored at U.S. Reactors for 60 Years?

Why NRDC has Challenged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Waste Confidence Rule

Last week my colleague and NRDC Senior Attorney Geoffrey Fettus filed a legal challenge to two final rulemakings by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: the “Waste Confidence Decision Update” and the “Consideration of Environmental Impacts of Temporary Storage of Spent Fuel After Cessation of Reactor Operation.” What does the Federal Government want to do with these new Rules, and why is NRDC opposing them?

To set the stage, the United States began building commercial nuclear power plants to generate electricity in 1957, and for the next decade connected about one new nuclear power plant a year to the grid. But then nuclear power really took off in this country: by 1979 – the year of the Pennsylvania Three Mile Island meltdown – there were 66 nuclear power plants in operation, and by the time of Ukraine’s Chernobyl explosion in 1986 the United States had reached roughly the point where it is today, at about 100 reactors. The wild enthusiasm for nuclear power in the decades following World War II had been corrected by a reality check on safety, and also on the poor economic outlook for nuclear power.

At the time these one hundred reactors were being built, proponents assumed that a deep underground (geologic) repository would accept the highly-radioactive spent fuel discharged each year by each reactor, either before or after reprocessing of the fuel.  To date no such geologic repository exists in the United States, and President Obama formally canceled the flawed program to develop Yucca Mountain, which was to be located within the US nuclear weapons test site in the Nevada desert. (If you are interested in why NRDC thinks the proposed Yucca Mountain repository program failed, see Fettus' testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.) So where is this spent nuclear fuel now?

Nuclear power plants receive new nuclear fuel once every 18 months to two years, and about one-third of the reactor core is then removed as spent fuel. This spent fuel is cooled in a storage pool next to the reactor, and either remains in the pool or is transferred to casks licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for so-called “dry” storage nearby. For the most part, then, all of the spent fuel produced by U.S. nuclear reactors hasn’t left the grounds of the nuclear power plant – in fact a large portion of it remains in the pools.  The most recent data we have on the quantities of spent fuel at the U.S. reactors is from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, from 2002, and I have mapped this up in Google Earth here. The total quantity of spent fuel stored at U.S. nuclear reactors in 2002 was 47 thousand tons. An additional 20 tons of spent fuel discharged per year from 104 reactors for 9 years totals 18.7 thousand tons, so our estimate is that the total quantity of spent nuclear fuel currently stored at U.S. reactors exceeds 60 thousand tons.

So in terms of where the spent fuel is located, Illinois tops the list, with more than ten percent of the commercial reactor spent fuel in the country. Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Michigan, and New York, Alabama and Florida come next on the list – these seven states together hold more than half of the country’s spent nuclear reactor fuel. And as you can see in Google Earth, many of these spent fuel storage sites are on the shores of the Great Lakes and major rivers like the Mississippi, and along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts – because those waters provide the reactors’ cooling.

In absurdist fashion, the new Waste Confidence Rule contains a “predictive” safety “finding” that simply stipulates spent reactor fuel can be disposed of safely at some unspecified time in the future, whenever it becomes “necessary” to dispose of it. The Rule also concludes that for at least sixty years after the cessation of reactor operations, spent fuel can be safely stored at reactor sites or in “special” facilities.

NRDC is challenging the Waste Confidence Rule for several reasons.  Under law – the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is required to evaluate the environmental impacts of this Rule and all alternatives available to the federal agency when making such a decision, which the Commission has not done.  The Waste Confidence Rule also violates the Atomic Energy Act (AEA), because it permits the licensing of new nuclear facilities on the basis of long outdated assumptions.  In fact, with these Rules, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission presumes that the radiation dose to people from the spent fuel will be … zero! You can read the longer (and legalese) version of NRDC’s objections to these Rules at

NRDC is not alone in challenging the Waste Confidence Rule. The New York Times reported last Wednesday that the attorneys general of New York, Connecticut and Vermont are suing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as well. New York’s attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman stated: “Our communities deserve a thorough review of the environmental, public health and safety risks such a move would present.”

NRDC’s objective in challenging the Waste Confidence Rule is to require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that evaluates the public health and environmental impacts of spent fuel disposal. We aim to require the Government to include the costs and environmental risks of spent fuel disposal within the scope of the licensing review of new nuclear reactors, and weigh the relative costs and benefits of new nuclear reactors against far cheaper energy efficiency savings and new renewable electricity sources.  The reality is that the price of safely disposing of spent reactor fuel is significant, and should finally be taken into account, especially before the government tries to license new nuclear reactors subsidized by taxpayer dollars, when more environmentally benign and less costly energy options are available.

Snapshot of Google Earth Layer on Spent Nuclear Fuel Stored at U.S. Reactors


About the Authors

Matthew McKinzie

Senior Scientist, Land & Wildlife program, and Director, Nuclear program

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