What Should America Do With Its Nuclear Waste?

Currently there are about 80 locations in 35 states where spent fuel is being stored, with no long-term plans for disposal.

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, about 20 miles south of Laguna Beach, Calif.
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, about 20 miles south of Laguna Beach, Calif. (Craig Cutler/For The Washington Post)
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correction

A previous version of the story imprecisely stated that the United States has a geological repository for defense waste. The repository is limited to defense-related radioactive waste like contaminated clothing and tools. The article has been updated.

A little more than a decade ago, Marni Magda was reading Scientific American magazine in her living room when she came across an infographic titled “Aging Fleet under Review.” Published shortly after an earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the two-page spread showed a map of nuclear facilities across the United States, with color coding to indicate seismic risk. Looking to her own region, coastal Southern California, Magda spotted a nuclear plant icon superimposed over an alarming shade of red. It represented the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, about 20 miles south of her city, Laguna Beach, and near multiple geological faults. “I realized as a California resident, we were in a great deal of trouble,” she recalled recently.

For Magda, a retired elementary school teacher, the interpretive map has acquired a status akin to a sacred text; she kept it and had it laminated. She handed it to me as we sat at a table in her backyard, birds chirping riotously in a large orange tree heavy with fruit. She explained that soon after her wake-up call in 2011, she found other area residents who also feared that an earthquake or tsunami could lead to a nuclear disaster in Southern California. She began attending marches in the state park adjacent to the plant, holding banners aloft and chanting, “Shut it down!”

The plant, which had about 2,000 employees and produced enough electricity to power 1.4 million homes, had operated since 1968. The looming domes of its two reactors were visible to drivers on Interstate 5, a heavily trafficked freeway, and to surfers who trekked from all over the world to catch waves at famed beaches nearby. The utility company that ran the plant, Southern California Edison (SCE), assured the public that the facility could withstand any plausible seismic or weather event. But in 2013, SCE announced that San Onofre would be decommissioned for a different reason: Flaws had been discovered in the steam generators. Many community members hailed the decision as a victory. “Oh, I was thrilled,” Magda, now 75, told me. “I was absolutely thrilled.”

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The celebration, however, was short-lived. Magda and other activists realized that all of the high-level radioactive waste that had accumulated at the plant over the course of its lifetime — 1,600 tons of spent fuel rods — would remain at the site for the foreseeable future. Although the federal government is legally responsible for disposing of commercial spent nuclear fuel in a permanent underground repository, there has been no plan for fulfilling that obligation since the Obama administration halted the project at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2010. There are currently about 80 locations in 35 states — mostly at operational and decommissioned nuclear plants — where spent fuel is being stored indefinitely.

Since the San Onofre plant shut down, Magda has been trying to get the spent fuel moved to a more suitable site and to ensure that, until then, it is stored as safely as possible. As of 2017, she has represented her local chapter of the Sierra Club on the Community Engagement Panel, an entity established by SCE that holds quarterly meetings with the public. In her garage, she showed me a gray filing cabinet with four vertically stacked drawers, her granddaughter’s teal bike propped up against the side. The drawers contain hundreds of manila files with hand-scrawled labels: “Western Interstate Energy Board,” “Sierra Club — Comments on Scoping Process,” “Thick vs. Thin Canisters & Corrosion Cracking.” Inside the folders are notes from meetings, business cards of public officials, news clippings, academic papers and government reports. In addition to earthquakes and tsunamis, Magda and other activists are worried about coastal erosion and sea level rise caused by climate change. “We can’t leave it here,” Magda says.

The question of what to do with the nation’s spent nuclear fuel has recently garnered renewed attention. This is thanks in part to U.S. Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.), who represents the district encompassing San Onofre and has taken up the cause as one of his signature issues. An environmental lawyer by training, he told me he ran for Congress partially to make progress on reviving the nation’s stalled efforts. In January 2019, he established a task force of local stakeholders to study the situation at San Onofre. He has also co-founded the bipartisan Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Caucus, with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), and introduced the Spent Fuel Prioritization Act, which would ensure that the material is moved first from the most sensitive locations, including San Onofre.

Among scientific experts and government officials, there is broad consensus that the optimal solution is to eventually bury nuclear waste in a deep geological repository. But that is a long-term goal, and in the near future, Levin and many others are pushing for “consolidated interim storage.” This would mean that the spent fuel scattered at sites across the country would be moved to one or more facilities, in appropriate settings, that would be devoted entirely to safely storing the fuel until a geological disposal facility is ready.

There is also agreement, of a limited sort, between many nuclear opponents and supporters on the importance of addressing the waste issue. But for many opponents, such as Magda, the waste is a reason to abandon this form of energy altogether. By contrast, supporters of nuclear power — the generation of which does not emit greenhouse gases — seek to resolve the spent fuel issue to clear hurdles to its expansion. A better waste management strategy is essential if nuclear power, which provides almost half of the country’s low-carbon electricity, is to play a meaningful role in a future energy system that does not rely on fossil fuels. To reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, the Biden administration has called for substantial investments in nuclear reactors. “The United States views nuclear energy as a pivotal technology in the global effort to lower emissions, expand economic opportunity, and ultimately combat climate change,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has said in a statement.

Despite recent momentum to break the spent fuel impasse, the obstacles are considerable. “Frankly we have a real problem in the U.S., not just at San Onofre,” Levin told me. “San Onofre is just the symptom, with 9 million people within 50 miles and two earthquake faults and rising sea level. The actual problem is that we’ve got nowhere to move it to.”

In a landmark 1957 report by the National Academy of Sciences, “The Disposal of Radioactive Waste on Land,” the authors proposed that the most viable method would be to inter it deep underground, preferably in salt mines. In the ensuing years, different ideas — including burying the waste in ice sheets and shooting it out into space — were thrown around. But the enduring conventional wisdom favors the original idea of deep geological repositories.

The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act was the first major law to address spent nuclear fuel, and assigned the federal government the task of constructing and operating such facilities. By that time, there were dozens of commercial nuclear plants that had been accumulating spent fuel and storing it on-site with no plans for disposal. According to the law, the Department of Energy was required to move promptly to site two geological repositories for permanent disposal.

In 1987, however, amendments to this law identified only a single location: Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The selection was based on the Energy Department’s assessment of the site’s geological features and was also thought to reflect political dynamics at the time. In the state, the legislation became known as the “Screw Nevada Bill.” Nevada’s powerful long-serving senator, Harry M. Reid, made it his mission to see that this repository would never come to pass. In 2010, the Obama administration announced that it would withdraw the license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the project. “We’re done with Yucca,” Carol Browner, President Barack Obama’s energy adviser, said. (The United States does have a deep geological repository for some defense-related radioactive waste such as contaminated clothing and tools, in New Mexico, but not for commercial spent fuel.)

“Frankly we have a real problem in the U.S., not just at San Onofre,” says U.S. Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.). “... The actual problem is that we’ve got nowhere to move [spent nuclear fuel] to.”

Meanwhile, Obama’s secretary of energy convened the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to devise a new strategy. The commission issued a report in January 2012. “The overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program has been one of broken promises and unmet commitments,” the report stated.

The report’s first recommendation, highlighting its importance, was a “consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities” for both permanent underground disposal and temporary aboveground storage. That is, instead of selecting sites based strictly on physical characteristics, the new approach would solicit volunteers, and engage communities, states, tribes and other stakeholders to obtain their approval before proceeding with plans. This idea was built around observations of more successful programs in other countries, including Finland and Sweden. The goal is “to work with the community to find out what they need, what they want, from their point of view, not from our point of view,” Tom Isaacs, a veteran nuclear waste expert who served as lead adviser to the commission, told me. This could mean jobs, investment in parks and schools, or other forms of compensation.

The Blue Ribbon Commission report was widely regarded as a seminal document in nuclear policy circles. But until recently, virtually no progress had been made toward implementing its recommendations, which included developing one or more geological disposal facilities as well as one or more consolidated storage facilities. (The Trump administration briefly tried to revive the Yucca Mountain plan, then reversed course.) “I’m both happy and sad that 10 years later, they’re still looking at that report,” Isaacs told me — proud that it is still a go-to resource for those working on the issue but frustrated that so little has changed.

The spent fuel at San Onofre is stored in 123 canisters, in what’s called an independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI, pronounced “ISSfuhsee”). Contrary to the popular impression of nuclear waste as green goo, the fuel rods consist of solid pellets, each slightly larger than a pencil eraser. The fuel rods, bundled into fuel assemblies, were retrieved from the reactors over the course of decades. After cooling for at least five years in pools of water, they were transferred into stainless-steel canisters, with walls five-eighths of an inch thick. Workers then transferred the loaded canisters, each of which weighs 50 tons, to a concrete pad overlooking the ocean and lowered them into stainless-steel cavities beneath the pad’s surface.

When I visited the site recently, on a bright, gusty day, I was led by John Dobken, San Onofre’s public information officer, and Jerry Stephenson, the ISFSI engineering manager, through security and outside to the concrete pad. On our way, we passed workers in hard hats engaged in the ongoing demolition of the plant — major decommissioning work is expected to continue through 2028 — as well as the construction of a rail yard. It was a reminder that radioactive spent fuel is not the only kind of waste produced by nuclear plants: Millions of pounds of metal and steel, and tens of thousands of titanium tubes, will eventually be loaded onto rail cars and shipped away, some to be recycled, some to a landfill. One day, according to the plan, the spent fuel will be shipped away on this rail line as well, though no one knows to where.

Out on the concrete pad, in my immediate vicinity, I could see a partially demolished industrial site; farther out, it looked like a commercial for a seaside vacation. The pad is elevated above sea level, but the ocean is about 100 feet away, behind a sea wall. “Dry fuel storage is very self-sufficient,” Stephenson said. “There’s no fans, there’s no cooling systems; it just sits there, fat, dumb and happy, as I like to say.”

We could not see the canisters, which were below our feet, inside the enclosures. Dobken told me that each canister was surrounded on the sides by 10 feet of concrete, as well as a three-foot reinforced concrete slab at both the top and the bottom, all of which blocks radiation that isn’t shielded by the stainless steel. According to SCE, the canisters were designed to handle any earthquake that could occur in the area and up to 125 feet of water. (There are two sections of the ISFSI with somewhat different designs; the older one is farther from the shore, above grade, and built for inundation by 50 feet of water.)

When I mentioned that I felt warm air emanating from the enclosures, Stephenson explained that vents allow air to continuously cool the spent fuel, and the air comes out heated. “I joke that we should put a little restaurant out here and serve drinks,” he said. He assured me that almost no radiation was escaping. A radiation monitor installed on the pad showed a reading of 13 microrem per hour, just slightly higher than the area’s natural background radiation. (For context, over the course of a cross-country flight passengers — because they are closer to the sun — are exposed to about 3,500 microrem, or 3.5 millirem.)

How dangerous is this material? As with everything related to nuclear power, answers to that question are highly polarized. As is so often the case, you can tell where someone stands by the language they use: Opponents call the substance “waste” and the sites where it’s stored “waste dumps.” Proponents tend to call it “used fuel,” as opposed to “spent,” to indicate that it has the potential to be recycled; they see it less as a threat than as a resource. These differences in perspective have been underscored by recent events. The attack on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant proved to anti-nuclear advocates that the energy source is unacceptably risky; pro-nuclear people see the geopolitical situation as a sign that Europe needs more nuclear power to pry itself from dependence on Russian oil and gas.

The fear of this substance, whatever we might call it, is hardly without basis. The 1957 National Academy of Sciences report stated, “Unlike the disposal of any other type of waste, the hazard related to radioactive waste is so great that no element of doubt should be allowed to exist regarding safety.” Being in the same room with unshielded nuclear waste, fresh out of the reactor, could very quickly give you a fatal dose of radiation.

Proponents argue that these hazards are real but entirely manageable. As Maria G. Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, put it in a recent New America webinar, “We know exactly where it is, we know exactly what it is, and it’s being very safely stored. … There’s other forms of generation that create waste, many of which you’re breathing.” James Lovelock, the British scientist best known for originating the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that life on Earth interacts with the planet to form a self-regulating system, is a champion of nuclear energy. “The nuclear waste is a minor burial problem, but the carbon dioxide waste will kill us all if we go on emitting it,” he wrote in a 2009 book.

“The overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program has been one of broken promises and unmet commitments,” a bipartisan report states.

Another point of contention involves the prospect of recycling. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” said Korsnick in the webinar, noting that “the thing we call waste” has more than 90 percent of its potential energy still untapped. The United States has eschewed reprocessing because of concerns about proliferation — that is, the risk that the material could be diverted for weapons — but other countries, such as France, do reprocess used fuel in civilian nuclear reactors. Recently, fresh interest in this option has emerged in the States. In March, Oklo, an advanced nuclear start-up, along with Deep Isolation, a company focused on nuclear waste disposal, won a $4 million grant from the Energy Department to develop the nation’s first nuclear fuel recycling and disposal facility.

Some of these divergent views, and gradations in between, are apparent in the community surrounding San Onofre. The community has been vigilantly monitoring the decommissioning process, with a contingent of activists who are critical of SCE. The Community Engagement Panel’s meetings have been well attended, and before they shifted online because of the pandemic, often raucous. David Victor, a professor of public policy at the University of California at San Diego, was tapped by the utility to lead the panel. “I’ve visited many plants in various state of closure,” he told me. “I’ve never seen this degree of public engagement.”

Rob Howard worked at the plant for 31 years. During that time, “I did pretty much everything,” he told me recently over a turkey sandwich, when we met at a cafe. In addition to working as a reactor operator and on the decommissioning, he was heavily involved in the union. Since being laid off in 2020, he has been leading an energy consulting firm called Zodiac Solutions and has participated in both Levin’s task force and SCE’s Community Engagement Panel.

Howard grew up in Memphis, as the son of a Baptist preacher. After a stint in the Navy, he was hired at San Onofre in 1989. His experience as a Black man in the nuclear industry gave him a distinctive, nuanced perspective. It wasn’t always easy; the industry is overwhelmingly White. At work, as in the rest of his life, he explains, he was obliged to put himself “in a position where people aren’t afraid of me. I cross the street before you do because I don’t want you to accuse me of anything. I can’t get angry at work. The onus is on me to keep you from being fearful.”

Nonetheless, he appreciated the economic security his career gave him. He has lived a good life with his wife and two children in Oceanside, a beach community not far from San Onofre. In fact, he felt an unexpected affinity with his job. “Nuclear power, I kind of had a kinship with it,” he told me, “because I knew people were afraid of it, and I knew what that felt like.”

As for the spent fuel, he says he is not particularly concerned about the risks, at least in the near term. But he supports efforts to move it, and he believes hosting it could present significant opportunities for the right community. He’s skeptical, however, that the government will exhibit the “cultural competence” to engage these communities in a constructive way. “I’m not saying the people who are doing it are bad people. But I always tell people: It’s not your intent. What’s the impact of your work? Are you actually having real conversations, and the people who you’re talking to, do they trust you?”

Other area residents are focused less on moving the fuel and more on addressing what they see as deficiencies in the current storage system. They were alarmed by a “near miss” incident in August 2018 when a canister was improperly lowered into an enclosure and was briefly wedged there. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission later reported that “the canister could have dropped 18 feet into the storage vault if the canister had slipped off the metal flange,” and it identified “multiple performance deficiencies.” SCE also did not notify the NRC Operations Center in a timely manner. In the aftermath, the utility instituted new training and procedures. But some community members have raised questions about the integrity of the canisters and the plans for addressing any problems that might arise.

Another reason some activists place less emphasis on moving the fuel is that they doubt it will happen in their lifetimes. “The idea of ‘just get it out of there’ is a convenient motto,” says Cathy Iwane, a yoga instructor and American activist who was living in Japan at the time of the Fukushima accident and now lives in Del Mar, another city in Southern California. (She serves as secretary of the Coalition for Nuclear Safety, an umbrella group of concerned organizations and individuals.) But Iwane and others are also wary of foisting their problem on a less affluent community. They believe that consolidated interim storage would inevitably drag on longer than promised. Iwane acknowledges that “some disenfranchised community will get infrastructure, equity and money,” but notes that “they will also be saddled with the nation’s radioactive waste.”

During the past decade, as the stalemate in the United States has continued, a handful of other countries have made progress in planning for the disposal of their nuclear waste. Finland is very close to opening the world’s first geological repository for spent fuel, and Sweden is not far behind, while Canada has narrowed its search to two possible host communities. They all followed the principles of consent-based siting: They invited communities that were potentially interested to engage in a dialogue, learn about the possibilities without making a commitment, and discuss their priorities and concerns.

According to Tom Isaacs, who is now an adviser to both SCE and Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization, the Canadians pay candidate communities to do “visioning exercises.” “They give them money to do the work to say, ‘Where would we like our community to go? How could this help us? What would we need in order for this facility to make our community better?’”

I spoke with Penny Lucas, the mayor of Ignace, Ontario, one of the two final candidate communities in Canada. She told me that the economy in Ignace had been based on mining — for gold, palladium and other metals — and forestry. But in recent decades, the mines have become less active, and the population has shrunk to about 1,300 people, roughly a fifth of whom are Indigenous and the rest White. She sees a nuclear waste repository — which would be about 22 miles away, in an uninhabited area — as an economic development opportunity. “There’s the possibility of getting our students, the younger generation, educated and ready for when the project does come here, then they’ll be able to apply for the jobs that would come along,” she says. Other workers would also presumably move to town, bringing ancillary benefits like new shops and restaurants.

Is she worried about safety? “Everybody hears the word ‘nuclear’ and they panic,” she responds. “Everything in life is a risk. We understand that. The forestry, the mining, all the things our community has been involved with already.” The question, she says, is “how you’re going to manage those risks.”

“If you had a situation where you felt something was inherently safe and you could get revenue for the next hundred years, would you take the deal?” asks Hobbs, N.M., Mayor Sam Cobb.

In the United States, we are nowhere near siting a permanent repository, but the Energy Department has begun working toward a program for interim storage facilities, with a budget of $20 million allocated for each of the past two fiscal years. In December, the department issued a request for information on consent-based siting for such facilities, inviting any member of the public to submit comments on what such a process should look like. The Energy Department’s developing approach “centers equity and environmental justice” and “makes the needs of people and communities central,” Kim Petry, the agency’s acting deputy assistant secretary for spent fuel and waste disposition, said in a virtual meeting with SCE’s Community Engagement Panel in February. In terms of how they will define consent, Petry told me: “It will be based on what the communities want. One community might want a referendum. One might want their state legislatures to vote on it.” She promised “close collaboration with these communities.”

Although the government is not yet at the stage of negotiating with towns or cities, two corporate ventures have engaged in talks with communities in New Mexico and Texas about potentially hosting interim storage sites through private initiatives. That is, the initiatives would be for-profit enterprises led by the companies — Holtec and Orano — that manufactured the spent fuel canisters, although they would still need approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Hobbs, N.M., is one of these communities; the proposed site is 35 miles from the closest population center. The four co-owners of the land — Hobbs, neighboring Carlsbad, and their respective counties — entered into an agreement with Holtec. In exchange for the land, Hobbs would get jobs associated with the storage and royalties from Holtec’s gross revenue. (The majority of the town’s population, according to 2020 Census data, identifies as both Hispanic/Latino and White.) In terms of community consent, Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb told me there has been no formal mechanism to gauge it. According to Cobb, at public meetings, many more people have expressed support than opposition. In the state legislature, however, bills have been introduced to block the site from proceeding.

When I asked Cobb about the possibility of becoming a de facto permanent storage site, he replied with his own question: “If you had a situation where you felt something was inherently safe and you could get revenue for the next hundred years, would you take the deal?”

Marni Magda, the retired teacher, believes that the waste at San Onofre is stored as safely as possible. She even flew with other members of the Community Engagement Panel to a Holtec factory in Turtle Creek, Pa., in 2018 to learn about the canisters and considers them “top-of-the-line.” Still, her mind is not eased. “There are so many things we don’t have control of,” she told me.

Magda points out that for real progress to occur, the law needs to change so that Yucca Mountain is not the only permissible site for a permanent repository. Levin has not yet introduced legislation to change that, but he told me he plans to. One arguable reason for optimism is that an improved waste management strategy, unlike so many other causes, has bipartisan support. “Nuclear waste doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Levin says.

But the challenges are formidable. Isaacs, the veteran nuclear waste expert, told me that in other countries there are higher levels of trust in the government and in fellow citizens. “One of the reasons it works so well in Finland is that they have an ethic where they don’t believe their neighbors would do anything to harm them, or the environment.” Americans have a long history of distrust of the nuclear industry and, especially in recent years, have been increasingly suspicious of both the government and one another. Certain aspects of our political system — such as the power of states — pose additional hurdles.

Though Isaacs considers San Onofre’s storage “perfectly safe,” he does agree that the status quo — with the spent fuel languishing at sites scattered across the country, in communities that didn’t sign up to host it — is undesirable. “We know what we have to do. We know we have to do it,” he says. “We’re the ones who created the waste; we’re the ones who benefited. We need to not simply pass this off to future generations and say, ‘Look, this is your problem.’ ”

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a journalist based in Southern California. She is working on a book about the future of nuclear energy.

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