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Nuclear power is considered in many countries a critical facet to maintaining reliable access to electricity during a global transition to low-carbon energy sources. One challenge to its potential in the United States, however, is the current standstill regarding a disposal pathway for spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from commercial reactors. This impasse has a negative bearing on nuclear energy’s ability to supply more zero-carbon electricity and may cost US taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in government liability for failing to meet contractual obligations to take possession of the waste from utilities.
Despite the scientific community assessing that commercial SNF and other high-level radioactive waste (HLW), such as from defense activities, can be safely isolated in deep underground repositories, US efforts to license and operate one have flatlined. The original plan for siting at least two repositories for such waste was abandoned first by DOE and then by Congress. Yucca Mountain in Nevada was designated in law as the nation’s sole potential disposal site by Congress in 1987, fomenting the state’s opposition to the project. As a result of that opposition, Congress has not funded the project since 2010.
Still, progress has been made over the last few decades in nuclear waste disposal programs in countries such as Finland, Sweden, and Canada. And the United States has seen the successful opening and operation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico to dispose of generally less radioactive but long-lived transuranic nuclear waste from defense activities. Such programs offer insights for how the United States can try to resolve the challenges with commercial nuclear waste disposal and potentially alleviate one obstacle to wider adoption of nuclear energy to decarbonize the US economy.
This report, part of wider work on nuclear energy at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, explains how the United States reached its current stalemate over nuclear waste disposal. It then examines productive approaches in other countries and a few domestic ones that could guide US policy makers through options for improving the prospects of SNF and HLW disposal going forward, including the following:
Despite nuclear energy’s anticipated role in achieving decarbonization, many climate finance taxonomies either explicitly exclude nuclear power or are ambiguous on whether it is included.
Deep borehole disposal of high-level radioactive waste has been proposed repeatedly and in multiple countries over the last several decades, but the concept remains unproven in the field.