Four powerful players want a nuclear waste solution. What’s stopping them? via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

By David Klaus

The 92-page platform adopted at the Democratic National Convention does not include a single sentence on the issue of how to manage the more than 80,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel sitting at 70 sites in communities across the country. The Republicans adjourned without adopting any new platform for 2020, leaving their 2016 platform in place—but it also did not address the nuclear waste issue.


The missing coalition. There should be a powerful coalition of diverse interests working to find a permanent disposal path for the thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel held in temporary storage facilities at commercial nuclear plants across the country. That coalition would include:

  • Utilities with nuclear reactors—many of them permanently closed or closing—that are being forced to build, operate, and secure storage facilities for over 80,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel accumulated over decades of operation;
  • The US government, which has the legal obligation to take back the spent fuel and, per court orders, currently pays in excess of $600 million per year to utilities to store that material;
  • The nuclear industry, which is directly prohibited by state law from building new nuclear plants in eight states until there is an established disposal path for spent nuclear fuel, and is effectively restricted by the waste issue in many other states; and
  • Environmental groups, which are concerned about the safety and security of storing tons of nuclear materials at sites in or near communities across the country.

Such a coalition of diverse interests should be an effective political force. Why hasn’t it produced any results?

The answer is that, notwithstanding their public statements, none of these potential interests really supports addressing the spent fuel issue or is willing to make it a political priority.


Ultimately, leadership on the issue is going to have to come from a president and congressional leaders who take seriously the US government’s legal obligation to accept commercial spent fuel and build a long-term repository to hold it. This obligation is grounded in nonproliferation policy and was established by statute in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.

Oddly, a consensus that the law needs to be changed emerged in the lead-up to the Nevada presidential primary election, when all candidates—including President Trump—announced their opposition to continued development of a long-term repository at Yucca Mountain. Whether that consensus on the need for change evolves into an actual solution will depend on the president who takes office this coming January, and the willingness of the parties that have an institutional interest in finding a solution to look past the reasons they have not done so in the past.

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