Security and Foreign Policy

The Long Road to Toxic Nuclear Waste Disposal

As nuclear power plants and methods to harness nuclear energy have been increasing, nuclear waste disposal mechanisms have been ineffective. Security Analyst Heather Hollow discusses the issue of nuclear waste disposal and the potential courses of action that can be taken. 


The discovery of the science behind Uranium and enrichment capabilities took place around the same time as World War II; thus, nuclear energy has a dual purpose. Its primary purpose was to build an atomic bomb under programs, such as the Manhattan Project. Following the war, President Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” program turned the focus of research towards electricity generation. With the continued use of nuclear power came the question: How would nuclear toxic waste be disposed of effectively? There are three types of nuclear waste; high, intermediate, and low-level waste. High-level waste only consists of 3% of nuclear waste; however, it poses the largest threat. There is not a single functioning high-level waste repository in the world, but there is a project underway in Finland that is leading the initiative.


High-level waste consists of U-235 and the byproduct, Plutonium. After the reaction, radioactive energy is slowly released taking thousands of years to decay and stabilize. Storing the waste in cement containers or submerged in pools as is done now is only a temporary solution, which is insufficient. Elements such as these that release radiation for thousands of years need permanent storage.

In 1988, the US convened a session with the Board on Radioactive Waste Management that concluded with a worldwide consensus on geological isolation of high-level waste as the most ideal storage. Progress to permanently store nuclear waste, particularly high-level waste, has been slow due to factors such as the vulnerability of sabotage, the future activity of groundwater, the risk of sea level rise, earthquakes, and climate change that could alter the future safety of the storage.

Social consensus has been a factor that has had the ability to halt efforts of a program, the most substantial difference between the US and Finland’s programs. The US’ Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, which began in 1987, was suspended in 2010 by the DOE due to the lack of public support. However, the D.C. Court of Appeals in 2013 demanded these efforts to continue. Nonetheless, construction of Finland’s Onkalo project is underway predominantly due to social consensus.


There is no universal solution to storing nuclear waste. First, social consensus may be easier to gain if the repository location is near a nuclear reactor because the population is already used to the technology, as in Finland. Second, drawing from the Blue Ribbon Commission’srecommendations, there should be “prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities.” Multiple locations, particularly in a geographically large country, can potentially reduce the risks of sabotage during transportation. Another facility in the US may also alleviate the burden placed on the population living in Yucca Mountain, which is currently the only community dealing with the nation’s nuclear waste. Third, the Commission recommended creating an organization with the purpose of implementing a waste management program to increase the countries’ likelihood of successfully executing a program. Lastly, new technology should be explored to reduce and stabilize waste. Thorium does not produce Plutonium and is more sustainable than Uranium because it produces 250 times more energy per unit. Fast reactors of generation IV are more efficient because they extend the use of U-235 by around 200x. Exploration of fusion reactors should continue as they have potential to produce a significant amount of energy.

Ultimately, countries should collaborate on technological developments via the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC), an organization that serves as a platform for the peaceful use of nuclear energy and establishes safety standards, security, and non-proliferation.

Heather Hollow is a candidate for a Master of Science in Global Affairs at New York University. She is focusing on Transnational Security, specifically looking at traditional and non-traditional security threats.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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