Proper disposal of nuclear waste is a highly controversial topic of discussion among government agencies and nuclear industries. These radioactive materials take several decades to decay and can pose a significant problem to future generations.
Most scientists agree that the best solution for disposing of nuclear waste is burying it deep in the earth. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 asserts that society is responsible for the safe disposal of hazard nuclear material. To this end, the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency have commissioned Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as their prime candidate for long-term disposal. At this site, nuclear waste from industry and military use will be received, packaged and stored deep under ground. In June 2008, the Department of Energy submitted an application to begin building the Yucca Mountain facility. However, in 2009, a new administration has halted this plan and instead called for more research into alternatives strategies for disposing of nuclear waste.
Low-level nuclear waste consists of materials used to handle high level radioactive parts and medical waste from radioactive and X-ray procedures. These materials are generally stored while their radioactive isotopes decay. After a period of about 50 years, this nuclear waste is believed to be safe for conventional disposal. Storage is a short-term solution for nuclear waste problems. Most nuclear plants store used nuclear fuel in large steel-lined concrete pools filled with water. This system keeps the radioactive material shielded, cooled and closely monitored. However, space is becoming more limited. The spent nuclear fuel must eventually make its way to a long-term repository. In 1998, federal law mandated that the Department of Energy begin transporting this nuclear waste to more permanent facilities.
Used nuclear fuel rods can be disposed of by recycling the unused fuel inside. However, the federal government does not recycle nuclear waste for security and economic reasons. Government agencies are exploring new recycling technologies that will redistribute used nuclear fuel but still have no definite plan in effect. The nuclear industry supports this method of nuclear waste disposal as cost effective and environmentally beneficial. The separated uranium can be reused as new fuel for commercial power plants and the more long-lived radioactive elements can be used for nuclear research. This is referred to as a closed fuel system. There are some drawbacks to this method of disposal. In fact, even after recycling, some nuclear waste would have to be permanently disposed of in a repository. Recycling would result in reduced toxicity, volume, and heat of used nuclear waste but is still not the final answer on nuclear waste disposal.