Integrated Waste Management

You are here

Infographic of an integrated waste management system from commercial nuclear power plants to geologic repositories.
The Department envisions an integrated waste management system with storage, transportation, and disposal capabilities in order to safely and effectively manage our nation's spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

Components of an Integrated Waste Management System

The Department is planning for an integrated waste management system to transport, store, and dispose of our nation's spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. An integrated waste management system consists of siting facilities and other key infrastructure needed to safely manage both spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste from commercial electricity generation, as well as national defense activities. The Department envisions an integrated waste management system that may contain:

Circular graphic reading: safe and secure operations, build trust among stakeholders, adapt operations based on lessons learned.
  • Pilot interim storage facilities, initially focused on accepting spent nuclear fuel from shutdown reactor sites
  • Full-scale, consolidated interim storage facilities that provide greater capacity and flexibility within the waste management system
  • Geologic repositories for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste
  • Transportation infrastructure to move spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste by rail, road, and barge

We aim to implement a flexible waste management system incrementally to ensure safe and secure operations, gain trust among stakeholders, and adapt operations based on lessons learned. To support this waste management system, the United States will need robust capabilities in the transportation, storage, and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

Photo of a transportation cask against a bright clear sky.
Transportation casks, such as these, would protect spent nuclear fuel in transit.

Transportation

The Department is exploring options to transport spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste to storage and disposal sites primarily by rail, and by road or barge when a railway is not accessible. Nuclear fuel transportation has a strong safety record. When shipments take place, the Department will work carefully with emergency officials along pre-approved routes to ensure the protection of all affected communities. During transportation, radioactive material is safely contained in large, sealed containers licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The massive containers protect people and the environment during routine operations, as well as in the unlikely case of a severe accident.

Spent nuclear fuel in storage at Big Rock Point.
Spent nuclear fuel in storage at Big Rock Point.

Storage

Developing a consolidated interim storage capability is an important component of the Department’s planned integrated waste management system. Interim storage of spent nuclear fuel would allow the Department to begin removing fuel from shutdown reactor sites in the near term. At present, there are 13 different shutdown reactor sites in the United States where removal of the remaining spent nuclear fuel could release the sites for other uses, representing significant progress in the Department’s nuclear waste management mission. Interim storage could also enable the federal government to begin meeting its waste acceptance obligations sooner and ultimately reduce liabilities caused by the delay in meeting those obligations. 

An interim storage capability is not a replacement for a long-term geologic repository. Rather, it is key component of an integrated system that provides flexibility and adaptability to managing waste. Even after a repository is operational, interim storage would provide key benefits, such as the potential to serve as a facility to package waste for disposal prior to shipment to a repository or to receive spent fuel in the unlikely event that an emergency situation arose at a nuclear power plant. 

Disposal

Permanent disposal is an essential element of a sustainable, integrated waste management system. Underground, deep geologic disposal is the best known method for permanently disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste without placing a burden of continued care on future generations. The Department is currently performing research and development to study the long-term performance of disposal systems in various rock types (clay/shale, salt, and crystalline rock), as well as to study the deep borehole disposal method.

On March 24, 2015, President Obama authorized the Department of Energy to develop a separate repository for high-level radioactive waste resulting from atomic energy defense activities. Establishing a separate repository for defense waste would represent significant progress toward addressing the Federal government’s Cold War legacy, as well as meeting the government’s obligation to manage the nation’s radioactive waste.

Pursuing a separate repository for high-level radioactive waste from atomic energy defense activities will also facilitate parallel efforts to permanently dispose of commercial spent nuclear fuel. Successful development of a repository for defense waste, following a consent-based approach, will provide important experience in the design, siting, licensing, and development of a facility that could be applied to a future repository for commercial spent nuclear fuel.