Nuclear power plants produce relatively little waste compared to the power generated

A typical large nuclear power plant, for example, can produce enough electricity to power 750,000 homes for a year.  That amount or power generation would only result in an estimated 20 metric tons of spent uranium fuel, which is equivalent to the cargo area of a small commercial truck. But spent fuel is highly radioactive and must be stored safely.

Short-term Storage

Spent fuel at the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants is managed securely in special buildings that house the fuel in steel-lined concrete pools filled with water. After spent fuel cools, it can be safely stored on plant property in temporary storage units called dry casks.

The spent fuel pool at Fermi 2 is nearing its storage capacity.  Detroit Edison has partnered with Holtec International to begin building cask storage units.  Learn more about this project.

Dry cask storage allows spent fuel that has already been cooled in the spent fuel pool for at least one year to be surrounded by inert gas inside a container called a cask.

Dry Cask Storage has been used at various U.S. nuclear facilities since the mid 1980s. It is a proven, safe technology. Spent fuel that has already been cooled in the spent fuel pool for at least one year is placed in massive airtight steel cylinders, or canisters. This storage system is referred to as 'dry' because the fuel is surrounded by inert helium gas rather than water. The steel cylinders are welded shut and surrounded by further layers of steel and concrete protection that provide both structural strength and radiation shielding. The casks are safely stored on site.

Currently there are two sites in Michigan at which dry cask storage units are used to control spent fuel -- Big Rock and Palisades.  Both facilities operate under a general license which authorizes a nuclear power plant to store spent fuel in NRC-approved casks at the site.

Our low-level radioactive waste is disposed of at NRC-licensed facilities, which have included Hanford in Richland, WA, Barnwell in Barnwell, SC and Envirocare in Clive, UT.

Long-term Storage

Industry experts agree the best way to store spent fuel is through the method of deep geological disposal, until an appropriate recycling program can be developed in the United States. 

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has overall responsibility for the disposal of used nuclear fuel. The DOE is currently building a repository located 1,000 feet beneath the earth under Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The repository would provide a central storage facility for the nation’s nuclear power plants.

Scientists began studying Yucca Mountain in the early 1980s as a possible repository for used fuel and for high-level radioactive waste from the nation’s defense programs.  The president and congress approved the site in 2002.  The DOE submitted its license application for the site in June 2008.

In September 2008, the NRC formally docketed the DOE’s license application. The docketing triggers a three-year deadline, with a possible one-year extension, set by the U.S. Congress, for the NRC to decide whether or not to grant a construction authorization. However, docketing doesn’t indicate whether the NRC will approve or reject the construction application.