Frequently Asked Questions   (from mid-1990s)

Question: How does the DOE plan to package the spent fuel from nuclear power plants for transport to a repository or monitored retrievable storage site?

Answer: According to the Department of Energy's latest proposal, about 90 percent of spent fuel from nuclear power plants would be shipped in the multi-purpose canister or MPC. The MPC is a packaging system for spent fuel rods that relies on a series of overpacks, one each for storage, transportation, or disposal. Two sizes of MPC, one with a 75-ton loaded weight, the other with 125-ton loaded weight, are currently under consideration. The MPCs are specifically designed to transport large quantities of radioactive waste by rail.

The conceptual design for the system was accepted by the DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management on February 10, and will now go out for bid to contractors who will submit detailed designs for the project.

90% of Spent Fuel by Rail

The decision to go with the MPC is an important one because it inherently sets the course for radioactive waste management for the future. The new system allows for greater storage flexibility than traditional one-purpose casks. The 125-ton MPC has three times the capacity of rail casks that are currently licensed, and DOE claims its size and decreased handling time would make it more economical and safer as an overall system.

DOE's decision to adopt the MPC follows the State of Nevada's recommendation that the DOE transportation system be based on large capacity rail casks. However, the State of Nevada has a number of concerns about DOE's MPC implementation plans. Bob Halstead, the state's transportation specialist, said that the DOE is putting all its eggs in a basket that doesn't yet exist. "They're planning for a rail-dependent hardware component, but they have no railroad to Yucca Mountain." At the very least, DOE needs to complete feasibility studies of at least two additional rail routes to Yucca Mountain before starting work on the Yucca Mountain Repository Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Even then it is not clear that rail access will be both technically feasible and economically and environmentally viable, said Halstead.

Dedicated Trains

In addition, Halstead said the state is concerned that the DOE has not yet committed itself to dedicated trains (trains used solely for nuclear waste transport). Dedicated trains would be preferable to mixed freight trains because there are more options for routing and they offer advantages for emergency response and shipment security.

Paul Standish, with Integrated Resources Group, Inc., a contractor and transportation specialist for DOE, thinks dedicated trains will be required due to public concerns about the issue. He agreed that rail studies were not ongoing. "It's a limited funding we have. We'd rather put money toward site characterization."

MPC History

In the mid 1980s, a universal cask, with a multi-purpose design was evaluated. It was dismissed at the time, but has been reconsidered in the past year and a half, probably due to pressure to have some type of canister ready for utilities by 1998. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) directed DOE to take possession of spent nuclear fuel from utilities starting in January, 1998, anticipating that a repository or Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) would be ready to accept the radioactive waste by that time. It now appears that neither of those scenarios will occur by 1998. In the meantime. The MPC offers interim relief from the time pressure. Because the MPC includes storage capability, utilities can retrieve spent fuel rods from already over-loaded cooling ponds, place them in the MPC, then arrange for on-site dry storage. The MPCs are ready for transport once they are inserted into the transportation overpack, and utilities are freed from further handling of the fuel assemblies.

The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management which studied the design concept indicated that the MPC was a viable option for waste acceptance and storage, as well as for the transportation and disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Although the MPC may increase worker radiological exposure, DOE does not expect an increase in radiological exposure to the public for transportation of the spent nuclear fuel. The MPC itself is somewhat more expensive than the single-purpose cask, but DOE has estimated that the MPC system would save about $500 million in overall costs.

The concept is planned to go out for bid to contractors this spring. Standish said he doesn't expect the design to be altered greatly. "They're suggesting that the suppliers use their initiative, but the Request For Proposals isn't specifically designed. It could conceivable look different," said Standish.

Cask Testing

Once a design is chosen, it will need Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing. The NRC requires that a variety of tests be applied to the same cask. However, full-scale testing is not required by the NRC regulations. Computer model analysis and scale model testing would be acceptable for many NRC standards. Standish thinks the public may demand full-scale testing even though it is not required by NRC. Halstead said that full-scale cask testing is the single biggest public concern issue for transportation.

Standish said that the term full-scale testing has not yet been defined. "What represents a full- scale test? Some feel the NRC tests don't encompass a worst-case scenario; from the public perception, that doesn't quite make it." He said he expects a lot of stakeholder involvement in determining what tests will be conducted.

Questions Remain

Halstead said the state is concerned that so little is known about what the requirements will be for the waste packages for disposal. "The design needs for the disposal phase are unknown right now," Halstead said. He said the time schedule for testing and site characterization also should be extended. The state is concerned that DOE's accelerated schedule might not allow time for the extensive tests that are needed for transportation safety and repository emplacement.

Questions remain as to how the disposal part of the MPC will actually work. Canisters may have to be reopened and reloaded at each repository site, and specific designs might have to be revamped for specific thermal loading capabilities of each site. The DOE is considering a high thermal loading scenario, allowing them to use lower cost materials for the waste emplacement package. "They are still proceeding with the hot waste package to keep packaging material costs down. That gives cause for concern about their approach to thermal loading," said Halstead. Thermal loading is the amount of heat generated by the fuel assemblies over time. Thermal loading can be affected by how closely the fuel assemblies are packed within a repository or MRS site.

The MPC decision signals that DOE is serious about rail shipments, although further rail access studies in Nevada and nationally have not been funded. The decision also means that for the purposes of planning in Nevada, both rail and truck routes must be considered. About ten percent of the spent fuel inventory cannot use MPC for one reason or another, and plans for packaging the waste from those utilities are uncertain.

Budget questions loom as well. The MPC design and development is so costly ($5.5 billion) that it could divert funds from Yucca Mountain site characterization at a time when DOE has been criticized for not spending enough money on actually studying the site.

 Back to Questions

Question: As a property owners along the proposed route, how will it affect us and what is the year proposed for everything to be completed?

Answer: A number of issues may affect property owners and residents. Communities along a rail or highway route could be affected largely by emergency response, health and safety issues and quality of life considerations.

Although many variables and questions remain, the Department of Energy's transportation studies are currently at a standstill. DOE has said transportation studies will not continue until Yucca Mountain is deemed technically sound or additional funding for such studies is found. At the current rate, it could take from five to eight years before transportation studies are resumed, says DOE transportation specialist Paul Standish, who works for Integrated Resources Group, Inc., under contract to the DOE.

The Carlin spur is one of three rail routes that could be chosen to carry high-level nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain if the site is chosen for a repository. Two other rail spurs, the Jean and Caliente options, are also under consideration; only the Caliente option has been studied by DOE. Construction of any of the three rail lines would be the longest new rail project in the United States since the 1930s and could cost more than $1 billion.

The proposed Carlin rail spur is a 365-mile rail corridor that would link the northern rial corridors of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific to bring high-level radioactive waste to the repository site. The Carlin route was found to have potential land-use conflicts, with an estimated population of 13,965 within a half-mile of the proposed rail corridor and mainline; 20,000 within the two mile rail corridor and mainline.

Several areas were explored for the Carlin option, and the proposed route is not fixed, Standish said in a recent interview. The area is a checkerboard pattern of private and public land, which makes complete avoidance of private land difficult.

Rail vs. Truck

DOE prefers rail transport over highway transport according to Standish who estimates that the proportion of high-level waste carried by truck would be forty-five percent as compared to fifty- five percent by rail. Standish said that once the repository was fully operational it would receive 1,000 twenty-five-ton truck shipments and 50-80 train shipments (with three to five 100-ton casks per train) pre year, assuming that most of the radioactive material came from the utilities.

Annually, the repository would receive 3,000 metric tons of radioactive waste for twenty-five years. Once the repository was operational, more waste would be transported across rail and highways each year than has been previously transported in the twenty-five-year history of the nuclear industry.

Figures from State Nuclear Waste Project Office studies could vary greatly from the DOE estimate. Preliminary state studies say there could be as many as 76,000 truck shipments or as few as 1,060 dedicated train shipments.

State Concerns

The state's transportation expert, Bob Halstead, says that transportation into the proposed site will be very difficult and that DOE is not addressing the problems in a timely enough way to be prepared for the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) hearings due to start in 1998. Specifically, Halstead believes that DOE should have completed preliminary feasibility studies of at least three rail routes prior to preparation of the draft EIS. The state is currently studying the three proposed rail routes, plus two others.

The state is concerned about these transportation issues:

  • The Yucca Mountain site offers the poorest primary rail and highway access of all the sites previously considered.

  • Rail access will require more miles, higher costs than any other previously screened site.

  • Three rail lines currently under consideration don't meet favorable access conditions spelled out in the transportation provisions of the DOE siting guidelines.

  • No attention has been paid to mainline entry points into Nevada for the purpose of avoiding routing through the Las Vegas area.

    Routing Regulations

    Under the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has the authority to set routing regulations for any transportation mode. At the present time, there are no rail routing regulations such as there are for highway routing of radioactive waste, and none are anticipated, according to Halstead. Rail rights-of-way are privately owned and restrict the regulatory abilities of state, tribal, and local governments. As a result, units of government below the federal level will have only limited input into routing rail shipments of spent fuel. Federal law requires that the DOT study both dedicated (radioactive waste only) and general-commerce trains to identify the advantages and disadvantages for each mode of transport.

    Halstead is concerned that DOE is not making a formal commitment to dedicated trains, special safety protocols and full-scale testing of rail casks -- measures that go beyond minimum regulatory requirements.

    Emergency Response

    All of the details for first emergency response to a radiological rail accident remain to be worked out. Generally, local people would be the first responders, with federal assistance available on request. Federal law requires that DOE provide the technical assistance and money to train people in radiological emergency response, but not provide the training itself. Standish said a federal Radiological Assistance Team, personnel trained to respond to releases of radioactivity, would be available at the request of the state to help control and clean up radiological accidents. He said it is unknown who would manage or control a radiological accident site, and that it is a matter to be worked out between state and federal agencies.

    Halstead said the state is concerned about accidents and emergency response along rail corridors, where access is often difficult, and a number of questions about emergency radiological response remain unanswered. He cited the difficulties of planning for radiological accidents along rail lines; there is a lack of access along rail corridors, and private ownership of rail rights-of-way makes it uncertain who would control accident sites.

    The state is concerned about the affects of the rail corridor on the overall health of communities through which the train travels. Current NRC regulations allow certain amounts of neutron and gamma radiation to be emitted from shipping casks during routine operations and transport (1,000 mrem/hour at the cask surface, and ten mrem/hour 2 meters from the cask surface). The health effects of these low levels of radiation are not fully understood; any emission from casks could increase health risks.

    Safety Record

    U.S. nuclear utilities have transported about 2,600 shipments of spent fuel from reactor sites since 1964 without significant off-site radiological release. No fatalities, injuries, or environmental damage have been caused by the radioactive cargo. However, the State Project Office reports that transportation and unloading accidents, equipment failure and at least one case of attempted sabotage have occurred.

     Back to Questions

    QuestionHow could the transport of nuclear waste through Eureka County affect property values?

    Answer:  In the event that the Yucca Mountain repository is opened, trucks and trains would begin transporting waste to the site from across the country. In areas where rail lines would be needed, or where bypasses or overpasses are necessary, the government would buy the land, or if landowners were unwilling, the land would be condemned and bought under the government jurisdiction of eminent domain.

    There is no data to suggest how property values statewide would be affected by a nuclear waste repository, although the state's Agency for Nuclear Projects plans such research for next year. Real estate values are influenced by what occurs in the economy and state leaders are concerned that a nuclear waste repository would tarnish the image of Nevada as a tourist mecca, thereby reducing income from tourism.

    For other parts of the state, most notably the areas located along the rail or trucking routes, the major concern is with the accidents that might occur and whether the risk associated with proximity to a nuclear waste route might devalue property.

     Back to Questions

    Question What is the role of perceived risk?

    Answer:  It is generally accepted that something that carries risk will drive property prices down. Probabilistic risk assessments are based on computer models and probabilities, and are impersonal. They weigh probabilities and come up with a risk assessment number, but they do not account for how people actually perceive risk and act on their perceptions of risk.

    "How people perceive risk will have economic, social, and other behavioral consequences," says Joe Strolin, administrator for the Planning Division for the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.

    "If for example people perceive the transportation of high-level radioactive waste to be a high risk activity, even if the probability number shows it not to be . . . they will act on those perceptions, not the actual risk."

    Strolin says a recent New Mexico Supreme Court case could have far-reaching affects in Nevada. The New Mexico Supreme Court case in August 1992 held that governments must pay damages for loss of a person's property value if fear (regardless of whether it is well-founded) of nuclear waste transportation affects the property's market value.

    In the case, justices said the city of Santa Fe must compensate a couple $337,815 in loss of value to property they own near a bypass the city planned to build to be used to transport nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad.

    During the jury trial a public survey was introduced as evidence. It showed that seventy-one percent of the people surveyed felt that residential property near the bypass would sell for less money because of its location. Nearly sixty percent of the respondents said they would not consider buying a house along the WIPP route.

    The court's main opinion stated that "if people will not purchase property because they fear living or working on or near a WIPP route, of if a buyer can be found, but only at a reduced price, a loss of value exists. If this loss can be proven to the jury, the landowner should be compensated." Ironically, it is the local government, not the DOE that must compensate owners in this instance.

    Don Hancock, administrator of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, believes there is some potential in Nevada for a similar situation.

    "I think the Santa Fe situation was unique, but circumstances are such (new rail routes being built specifically to carry nuclear waste) that you could develop an analogous situation for Yucca Mountain. When you create a rail or bridge or train route exclusively for nuclear waste, property values along such a route would probably get depressed."

    Nevada authorities are split over how much of a ripple effect the New Mexico case might have in Nevada.

    Paul Standish, with Integrated Resources Group, Inc., a contractor and transportation specialist for DOE, said the Nevada situation is slightly different from the New Mexico scenario. "That situation was for a highway being built (In Nevada, most likely rail lines, not highways, would be built). It's difficult for me to speculate on public perceptions. Even though we've been transporting this stuff for thirty years without a loss of materials, it is possible. Anything with a nuclear label on it has a way of affecting public perceptions," said Standish.

    According to Standish, if similar suits over property devaluation were filed in Nevada, the cases would likely be settled case by case in the courts. ‘I don't think DOE will pay out any money to folks because they feel their property has been devalued. I think it will have to go to court," he said.

     Back to Questions

    Question:  What are the risks associated with railroad crossings?

    Answer:  Railroad crossings, where trains carrying nuclear waste would intersect with rural highways, probably would be the most dangerous locations for citizens in Eureka County. Both Standish and Bob Halstead, the state's transportation specialist, agree on that point.

    "For the public, that is probably the highest risk -- derailments don't necessarily result in that much risk to the public," said Standish. "But it's no more than a proportional amount of risk," he said.

    Halstead stated that statistics show crossing accidents to pose the greatest overall risk to the public when it comes to rail transportation. He estimated that between five and ten underpasses and/or overpasses would be needed for the proposed Carlin route. "That's the way to avoid the problem of grade crossings," he said, "build underpasses and overpasses."

    Danger to the trains carrying the radioactive waste is also high at crossings. Halstead said he would be concerned about grade crossing accidents involving flammable or explosive materials which might damage casks on short, dedicated (transporting waste only) trains.

     Back to Questions

    QuestionWho is liable if a radioactive waste shipment is involved in an accident?

    Answer:  Liability for a nuclear accident, whether along a truck or rail route or at a nuclear reactor site, is determined by the 1954 Price-Anderson Act. The Price-Anderson Act was first passed in 1957 as an amendment to the 1954 Atomic Energy Act. Originally enacted to help an infant industry get off the ground, the purpose of the act is to protect the nuclear industry from a potential accident liability so large that it would threaten the future of nuclear power, and to ensure that the public would be compensated for any damage resulting from a nuclear accident. The act was amended in 1998 to bring the nuclear-related activities of the Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractors under the same liability coverage – meaning that any accident occurring during the transportation and storage of nuclear waste would also be covered under the Price-Anderson Act.

    Under the act’s “no-fault” liability system, the amount nuclear power utilities must pay in the event of a catastrophic reactor accident is capped. Reactor owners must obtain $200 million in liability coverage from a private insurance company. If an accident were to exceed $200 million in damages, each of the country’s 103 reactor operators must pay up to $88 million per reactor. Therefore, privately financed insurance would cover a total of $9.3 billion in damages. In exchange for this limit on financial liability, in the event of an “extraordinary nuclear occurrence,” nuclear utilities must waive legal defenses against paying claims. This is intended to relieve victims of the necessity of proving negligence.

    In the event of an “extraordinary” accident involving DOE contractors, as would be the case with nuclear waste transportation, an indemnity agreement would be arranged. This means that the contractors would not be held liable – even if proven so in a court of law – and the government would pay all damages incurred up to the commercial reactor liability limit. In both cases, whether the accident involved a nuclear power utility or a DOE contractor, if the damage costs exceeded the $9.3 billion liability limit, it would be up to Congress to enact legislation to provide full compensation to the public.

    However, critics of the Price-Anderson Act question whether the coverage it provides is adequate. A 1982 Nuclear Regulatory Commission study found that a severe nuclear accident could cost as much as $560 billion in today’s dollars. The $9.3 billion provided by the industry would therefore cover less than two percent of the damages incurred in such an accident, leaving the industry largely immune while the government foots the vast majority of the bill. “The nuclear industry is the only industry in America that is absolved of any guilt or liability for any accident, even if it is their own fault,” said Representative Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.

    In light of the September 11 terrorist attacks, some consumer and environmental groups are calling for a thorough reassessment of nuclear security before Price-Anderson is reauthorized. The act has also been criticized for precluding victims of a nuclear accident from directly suing those companies responsible. Yet another concern is that by absolving DOE contractors of accountability, the indemnification clause of the act discourages safe and conscientious handling of nuclear materials.

    The House Energy and Commerce Committee has approved a 15-year renewal of the Price-Anderson Act, H.R. 2983. The bill will be voted on in the full House sometime in November of 2001. If the bill does not pass, the act will expire in 2002. See the Price-Anderson section on our Transportation Page for more information.

     Back to Questions

    QuestionWhat are other countries doing about their nuclear waste from power plants?

    Answer: After years of study, most countries have concluded that permanent geologic burial is the most acceptable solution for the final disposition of high-level nuclear waste. Countries in Europe and Asia also reprocess their nuclear waste. Reprocessing both reduces the volume of nuclear waste and provides uranium and plutonium that can be used to produce more energy. However, some nations regard spent fuel as waste and have rejected reprocessing as a viable option due to economic, environmental, and proliferation concerns. Those countries that do reprocess nuclear waste are planning to entomb the remaining wastes in underground repositories with other high-level wastes that have accumulated. Those that do not reprocess plan to bury their spent fuel as is. In the meantime, the wastes are being kept in various types of interim storage facilities.

    The issue of nuclear waste storage and disposal is complex and fraught with controversy. As in the United States, nearly every nuclear waste disposal program around the world has fallen behind schedule due to scientific uncertainty and public opposition. The following is a brief synopsis of how other countries in the world are dealing with their own nuclear waste dilemmas.

    Canada’s 14 operating nuclear reactors supply 12 percent of the country’s energy demand. The reactors are owned and operated by the provincial government utilities, which have the primary responsibility for the management of nuclear waste. Canada has identified geologic disposal as its nuclear waste management policy and has no plans to reprocess any of its spent fuel. Atomic Energy of Canada Unlimited (AECL) spent several years researching and developing a repository concept, coming to the conclusion that the waste should be buried in stable granite-like rock formations called plutons, which are found in the Canadian Shield.

    However, even though the project was deemed technically safe, strong public opposition at hearings in the potential siting areas of Ontario and Manitoba led the Canadian government to abandon the project. The waste will be kept in an interim storage facility while a new nuclear waste management agency, set up in 1998, examines the potential of other disposal concepts.

    The repository was originally scheduled to open in 2025 and take 40 years to fill, but due to siting difficulties, a repository is not expected to be operation before 2035. Currently, Canada is looking into the possibility of initiating a voluntary siting program.

    China currently has three operating reactors and plans to significantly increase nuclear power generation in the future. China intends to reprocess all of its spent fuel after a five-year cooling period at the reactor sites. A long-term program has been underway since 1986 to carry out research into the eventual development of a permanent repository for the remaining high-level waste. A central Spent Fuel Wet Storage Facility opened in 2000 in northwest China.

    Before permanent underground burial, the wastes left over from reprocessing will be incorporated into glass – a process known as vitrification. Granite has been identified as the preferred rock for disposal of the vitrified high-level waste. China has one candidate site for a repository, the Beishan site located in the Gobi desert in northwest China. Site characterization studies began there in 1989 and are scheduled to continue until 2010. China intends to begin the process to license the site in 2020 with waste disposal beginning in 2040.

    Finland’s four nuclear reactors produce 32 percent of its electricity. Finland’s two nuclear power utilities are responsible for the safe management of wastes and for the research and development of a repository. No Finnish spent fuel has been reprocessed since 1996. Currently, it appears that Finland will be the first country to actually begin construction of an underground repository for high-level waste.

    After studies of four different locations, the Olkiluoto site, where a low-level waste repository has been in operation since 1992, was deemed the most suitable. The proposed repository will be built on a flexible “design-as-you-go” basis, depending on actual geological conditions found during development.

    Finland’s program has been deemed both technically feasible and publicly acceptable. Finland’s nuclear waste policy gives the community near a possible disposal site the right to veto the proposal, however, about 78 percent of the designated site’s surrounding population support the repository project. Once the government gives its expected confirmation of the site, development of an underground research laboratory will begin. Construction of the actual repository will follow in 2010 and last for approximately ten years.

    France’s 59 operating nuclear reactors produce 76 percent the country’s electricity, making France the most nuclear-reliant country in the world. Under French law, producers of nuclear waste must arrange and pay for its disposal at a facility approved by the government.

    France currently plans to reprocess all of its spent fuel. Cogema’s La Hague plant in northern France reprocesses not only French spent fuel, but fuel from Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Eventually high.level waste, in the form of vitrified glass logs, will be permanently disposed in a deep geologic repository. The waste is currently being stored at reactor sites and reprocessing facilities.

    Four potential areas for a geologic repository were initially selected for study. Each had a specific geologic formation: clay in the northern part of the Parisian Basin, granite and shale in western France, and salt in eastern France. After a seven-year long process of public inquiries and technical assessments, it was decided that research should proceed at two sites. An underground laboratory is currently under construction at Bure in the east of France. A granite site is still to be selected but inquiries into potential granite sites were halted last year due to strong local opposition. French law requires that at least two underground research laboratories be developed prior to a final decision on a repository, one in crystalline rock and another in a sedimentary formation. The French parliament is expected to select the final site in 2006.

    In 1998, Germany’s coalition government proposed the complete abandonment of nuclear energy. The country is now in the process of phasing out nuclear power, with plans to shut down each of its remaining 19 reactors at the end of their operating lives. Germany has had its spent fuel reprocessed in France and Britain, but as of 2005 all nuclear fuel will be directly disposed of without reprocessing. A 1998 Coalition Agreement stipulates a single repository for all types of nuclear waste, in a rock type yet to be decided.

    Interim storage facilities have been built to house spent fuel at Ahaus, near the Dutch border, and at Gorleben. The transportation of spent fuel to these two facilities has been a heated issue in Germany. All nuclear waste transportation was suspended in 1998 after it was found that waste containers were externally contaminated. The German government has since reauthorized shipments, but faced intense opposition from the public and local governments.

    Germany had initially intended to investigate only the Gorleben salt dome as a potential site for a geologic repository, but after a significant drop in public support for the project, the entire disposal policy is being re-evaluated. Although geologic disposal remains the preferred option, other rock types will be studied before a siting decision is made. Exploration work at Gorleben has been suspended for three to ten years while other potential repository sites are being identified. Germany plans to begin operations at a repository around 2030.

    India currently has 14 nuclear reactors in operation. India intends to reprocess all the spent fuel generated by its nuclear reactors and is currently developing the capability to do so domestically. A “semi-commercial” reprocessing facility is in operation in Kalpakkam, where spent fuel is stored prior to vitrification.

    India plans to dispose of its high-level waste in a deep geologic repository after at least 20 years of interim storage. The process of identifying potential sites for a repository is currently underway with crystalline rock as the favored geologic formation to be studied. The Kalpakkam site, underlain by granite, is one of the sites under consideration along with several abandoned mines.

    Japan currently has 54 operating nuclear reactors. Japan’s policy is to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel both domestically and abroad at France’s La Hague facility. High-level waste is vitrified and stored underground for 30 to 50 years for cooling. Japan ultimately plans to dispose of the high-level waste in a geologic repository. A Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NUMO) was established in 2000 to oversee this process.

    Accepting that the possibility of earthquakes cannot be ruled out at any potential site in Japan, officials are developing repository designs that combine massive engineered barrier systems to complement the surrounding geological environment. In 2004 two sites will be selected for detailed characterization studies. Japan’s tentative target for the commissioning of a repository is sometime in the 2030’s and no later than 2045.

    Pakistan has two commercial nuclear reactors. One is located near Karachi in the southern part of the country. The second nuclear power plant, which became fully operational in March of this year, is located near Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Nuclear power provides only 1.7 percent of Pakistan’s electricity, but there are plans to greatly expand nuclear capacity in the future. This expansion includes the eventual development of a complete domestic nuclear fuel cycle, including reprocessing.

    The Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority was established in January 2001 to oversee the country’s nuclear activities. Currently, all of Pakistan’s spent fuel is stored in pools at the two reactor sites. These storage facilities are expected to be sufficient until 2012. As of yet, there are no plans to build a repository for the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste.

    Russia’s 30 nuclear reactors provide about 15 percent of the country’s electricity. Russia’s nuclear waste policy does allow for reprocessing, but only for spent fuel from certain reactor types. Several concepts for final waste disposal are currently under investigation, including both mined cavity and deep borehole emplacement. Eventually, Russia intends to establish four geologic repositories for high-level waste.

    Two potential repository sites were identified in 1996: the Itatskiy and Kamennyi sites, both located in Siberian granite. Investigations are currently taking place at the Kamennyi site, which appears to be the more suitable of the two. Russia has plans to construct an underground laboratory at one of the sites to conduct further research. While site characterization activities are taking place, the waste will be stored in an interim facility for three to ten years and then vitrified prior to disposal.

    Sweden currently has 12 reactors which produce about 46 percent of the country’s electricity. In a national referendum in 1980, Sweden voted to phase out nuclear power. Because there will be no future need for recycled nuclear fuel, Sweden has decided against reprocessing. The country has opted instead to bury the waste in a geologic repository, most likely in crystalline bedrock.

    Public opposition to a deep geologic repository in Sweden has considerably slowed down the process of locating a suitable site. In the past, protests have halted exploration of several potential sites. The final site designation was originally scheduled to take place in 1997, but now even initial investigations into three potential sites are not expected to begin until 2002. While sites for a permanent repository are being evaluated, Sweden will store its nuclear waste in a central interim storage facility called CLAB. Irradiated fuel is shipped to the facility by sea in order to avoid transportation controversies.

    Sweden is also home to an international research project that focuses on the movement of fluids through fractures in granite rock systems. As granite is a common repository rock type, the information about fluid movement is useful for the nuclear technology field.

    Switzerland’s five nuclear power plants provide about 39 percent of the country’s electricity. The density of population in Switzerland prevents shallow land burial of any radioactive waste. Therefore, even fairly short-lived low-level wastes have to be buried in a geologic repository. The Wellenberg site is under investigation for the disposal of low-level waste and is a possible candidate for a high-level waste repository as well.

    Switzerland sends its spent fuel to facilities in France and Great Britain for reprocessing. The remaining wastes will be stored for 30 to 40 years and then disposed of in a geologic repository. Once a final site is chosen, the concept for a repository must be successfully demonstrated in an underground laboratory onsite. There are currently two different repository concepts, which depend on the type of rock chosen – crystalline rock or clay. Switzerland is planning to have an active nuclear waste repository sometime after 2050. Until a repository is built, the waste will be kept in the ZWILAG interim storage facility in northern Switzerland. Consideration is also being given to cooperative multinational projects.

    Twenty-two percent of the United Kingdom’s energy demand is met by nuclear power. The UK reprocesses its spent fuel at Sellafield, a facility operated by British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), a state-owned corporation responsible for Britain’s high-level waste. As in France, Britain reprocesses both domestic and foreign spent fuels. Currently, high-level nuclear waste is stored onsite at Sellafield in liquid form. BNFL plans to vitrify the waste into glass logs and after a 50-100 year cooling period, permanently bury it in a deep geologic repository.

    The British government will make a final decision regarding waste burial sometime during the 50-year cooling period. Up until 1981, a disposal program involving limited exploration into crystalline and sedimentary rock was conducted. Detailed studies took place at a site called Altnabreac, but were abandoned due to intense public opposition. Now only general research is conducted. The British government has recently stressed its commitment to develop a nuclear waste management policy in a transparent and open-minded way to ensure maximum public acceptance before decisions about the future siting of a geologic repository are made.

    This report was prepared by the Eureka County Yucca Mountain Information Office for the Fall 2001 edition of the Nuclear Waste Update Newsletter.

    Selected Country Programs for High-Level Waste Burial

    Country Earliest
    Planned Year
    Status of Program
    Argentina 2040 Granite site at Gastre, Chubut, selected
    Canada 2020 Independent commission conducting four-year study of government plan to bury irradiated fuel in granite at yet-to-be-identified site
    China none Irradiated fuel to be reprocessed; Gobi desert sites under investigation
    Finland 2020 Field studies being conducted; final site selection due in 2000
    France 2010 Three sites to be selected and studied; final site not to be selected until 2006
    Germany 2008 Gorleben salt dome sole site to be studied
    India 2010 Irradiated fuel to be reprocessed, waste stored for 20 years, then buried in yet-to-be-identified granite site
    Italy 2040 Irradiated fuel to be reprocessed, and waste stored for 50-60 years before burial in clay or granite
    Japan 2020 Limited site studies. Cooperative program with China to build underground research facility
    Netherlands 2040 Interim storage of reprocessing waste for 50-100 years before eventual burial, possibly in another country
    Sweden 2020 Granite site to be selected in 1997; evaluation studies under way at Aspo site near Oskarshamn nuclear complex
    United States 2010 Yucca Mountain site being studied. Will receive 70,000 tons of waste if approved
    United Kingdom 2030 Fifty-year storage approved in 1982; exploring options for permanent disposal
    Source: Worldwatch Institute, 1992

     Back to Questions

    Question:  How would the nuclear waste be transported to the Yucca Mountain site?

    Answer:  Specialized containers must be developed to safely transport high-level waste.

    These containers, called casks, are the primary insurance against the release of radiation during transport. They must be heavily shielded to contain the radioactive material with allowable limits. They must be certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to withstand extreme accidents, impact, puncture, and exposure to fire and water. The casks are being designed to meet legal weight limits. DOE is in the process of developing casks to transport commercial spent fuel from nuclear power plants to the nation's first high-level waste repository.

    While the Department of Energy has said transportation decisions won't be made until Yucca Mountain is deemed technically sound, many options are under consideration. The waste may be transported via rail or truck, or using a combination of the two; the decision has not been made. In one scenario, DOE would build a rail spur heading southwest from Carlin toward Tonopah. The "Carlin route" as presently described, would cut through Pine Valley and transverse Eureka County in a southwesterly direction. Eureka County could also experience truck shipments if county highways are used as alternate routes due to bad weather or accidents.

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