No single question bedevils American energy and environmental policy more than nuclear waste. No, not even a changing climate, which may be a wicked problem but receives much counter-bedeviling attention.
It isn’t easy to paint the picture with a straight face. Let’s start with the three main elements of the story.
First, nuclear power plants in the United States generate about 2,000 metric tons of nuclear waste (or “spent fuel”) per year. Due to its inherent radioactivity, it is carefully stored at various sites around the country.
Second, the federal government is in charge of figuring out what to do with it. Power plant operators have paid over $40 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund so that the government can handle it. The idea was to bury it in the “deep geological repository” embodied by Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but this has proved politically impossible. Nevertheless, $15 billion was spent on the scoping.
Third, due to the Energy Department’s inability to manage this waste, it simply accumulates. According to that agency’s most recent data release, some 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel—hundreds of thousands of fuel assemblies containing millions of fuel rods—is waiting for a final destination.