What’s so tough about disposing of nuclear waste?

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Dear Cecil: Certain legislators are looking to pass laws stating that my state (Illinois) will not take nuclear waste from states that don’t take our nuclear waste. Being a lover of life and long-term existence (read that: antinuclear, pro-solar and wind, on principle), why does anybody’s waste have to be sent anywhere? Why don’t we keep ours and they keep theirs? Is it just to create jobs for people who could otherwise be employed in recycling facilities, hospitals, teaching, etc.? Robyn M., Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Cecil Adams replies:

We need to clear our minds of fog when discussing these things, Robyn. The nation’s nuclear waste dumps (there are currently three) were hardly intended as make-work projects. But your point about recycling is well taken. Fact is, recycling has gotten to be a big deal in the nuclear waste business, and the need for more waste dumps is much less urgent now. Since you’re obviously an eco-minded tree-hugging kind of person, you might want to get into nuclear recycling yourself. I’m sure you’d find it a rewarding job.

Let’s clarify a few matters first. What we’re talking about here is low-level radioactive waste, which consists of things like contaminated gloves and tools, the residue from medical tests and experiments, and so on. We distinguish this from high-level waste, which results from the processing of spent fuel from nuclear power plants. Originally spent fuel was supposed to be reprocessed so that it could be used over again. Unfortunately, reprocessing necessarily involves the production of plutonium, a principal ingredient in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and reprocessing plants and associated vehicles thus would be a prime target for theft attempts by terrorists. The government accordingly put a hold on the construction of any such plants pending further study. This was during the Carter administration, you realize, and here it is 20 years later and they’re still studying it. (The government is close to opening a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, but that’s primarily for waste from nuclear weapons, not power plants.) In the meantime spent fuel is piling up in temporary storage facilities at most nuclear power plants. Frankly it’s looking like the stuff will just stay where it is, and each nuclear power plant will become its own nuclear waste dump forevermore (or at least for several thousand years).

The disposal of low-level waste (hereinafter LLW) is another matter. LLW is usually packed into 55-gallon drums and buried under five to ten feet of earth in trenches either on site, as with some nuclear power plants, or at privately operated sites near Richland, Washington; Clive, Utah; and Barnwell, South Carolina. Although not as lethal as high-level waste, LLW is still nasty stuff, and most states–including Washington, Utah, and South Carolina–would rather dump theirs on somebody else. To force the states to take some responsibility, Congress in 1980 passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, which declared that each state would be held responsible for the disposal of low-level waste generated within its borders. That means each state has to either build its own waste dump or enter into a regional compact with nearby states to establish a joint waste disposal site. The federal government prefers the latter strategy because it’s easier to police a few large sites than many small ones and also because larger sites are more economical to operate. Just in case any state failed to see the wisdom of this, the Radioactive Waste Policy Act provided that dumps operated by compact states had the right to refuse waste from non-compact states after January 1, 1986.

Illinois formed a compact with Kentucky, but the two states have made no progress establishing an LLW dump. A plan to open a facility in southeastern Illinois collapsed in the early 1990s over concerns about groundwater contamination. No LLW dumps have opened in any other states, either.

The good news is that the dimensions of the low-level waste disposal problem have been much reduced–literally–due to recycling, trash compaction, and other measures by users of nukes. IL and KY, for example, generated 205,000 cubic feet of radioactive junk in 1986. By 1995 that had fallen to 58,000 cubic feet. The story is similar nationwide, and many experts now believe the three existing dumps will be able to handle the expected volumes of low- level waste for decades to come. Eventually we’ll have to deal with the issue, of course. But the feeling seems to be, we’ve already fobbed off the Social Security crisis on our kids; why not the nuclear waste disposal crisis too?

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.