What to Read About Nuclear Waste

It’s a big subject and the place to start is with the long history of books about how to dispose of spent nuclear fuel

owl-readingFirst, there are some conceptual issues including what kind of radioactive waste you are interested in.  The world of radioactive waste is also divided into civilian v. defense wastes the latter including classified types to avoid giving away nuclear weapons secrets.

Second, the waste forms are divided into spent fuel v. radioactive trash of all kinds including low level waste, greater than class C waste, contact handled v. non-contract handed, remote handled transuranic waste, etc. Then you also have mixed waste which is a witches brew of hazardous chemicals and radioactive materials.

Third, spent fuel itself is divided into ordinary spent fuel from commercial reactors, high-burnup fuel, also from commercial reactors, but enriched to 5% U235 rather than 3%. Add to that MOX fuel, uranium metal fuels, etc., research reactor spent fuel, and then add the US Navy spent fuel from its ships and submarines.

Navy spent fuel is stored at a special depot in Idaho where most of it has been moved from wet to dry storage. A federal settlement agreement requires it to be moved to a permanent geologic repository by 2035, but so far it has nowhere to go.

Over the past four decades, according to NEI, the entire commercial nuclear industry has produced close to 77,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel. It is stored at the reactors where it was generated by utilities. The NRC said in its waste confidence decision that this is a safe practice for at least the next 100 years or so.

In the US two firms are developing interim storage sites for spent nuclear fuel in the geologically stable and bone dry desert southwest of west Texas and south eastern New Mexico.

Fourth, international conventions for sorting nuclear waste into various categories for disposition falls into two broad forms – low level and high level, but the boundary between them is not fixed and different countries will manage their waste forms according to national standards.


In an email exchange with Sam Brinton, Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC, he suggests that good a starting point to understand spent nuclear fuel is the Blue Ribbon Commission report which remains a useful volume. It is an excellent report and is accessible, for the most part, for people who have no technical background in nuclear energy.

Here is a brief summary.


The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC) was formed by the Secretary of Energy at the request of the President to conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and recommend a new strategy. It was cochaired by Rep. Lee H. Hamilton and Gen. Brent Scowcroft.

The Commission and its subcommittees met more than two dozen times between March 2010 and January 2012 to hear testimony from experts and stakeholders, to visit nuclear waste management facilities in the United States and abroad, and to discuss the issues identified in its Charter.

Additionally, in 2011, the Commission held five public meetings, in different regions of the country, to hear feedback on its draft report. A wide variety of organizations, interest groups, and individuals provided input to the Commission at these meetings and through the submission of written materials.

This report highlights the Commission’s findings and conclusions and presents recommendations for consideration by the Administration and Congress, as well as interested state, tribal and local governments, other stakeholders, and the public.

In 2016 the Department of Energy is pursuing a “consent based” approach to locating a site for final disposition for spent nuclear fuel.

Sam Brinton’s Informal Bibliography

Sam Brinton has compiled an informal bibliography of books and reports on nuclear waste with an emphasis on spent nuclear fuel that he hopes will help his work. He’s agreed to share it with readers of this blog with the caveat that doing so is neither an endorsement nor a recommendation for any of the books or their content.

Because of the size of the file, it is compiled as a Google Doc which you can download here. Alternatively, if your firewall blocks sharing of Google Docs, a PDF version is also available.

The bibliography lists the title, the author ID, the ISBN numbers and summary information including brief reviews where available. Please note that some of the volumes are very technical, but there are also books for generalists.  Prices of books are not listed as some are out of print and available via second hand book sellers depending condition. All of these books can be bought from online booksellers.

Comments with suggestions for additional readings are welcome. I will add them to the Google Docs file.

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About djysrv

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