What We Regulate

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The NRC has regulatory authority over storage and disposal of all commercially generated wastes in the United States and those high-level wastes generated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that are subject to long term storage and that are not used for, or part of, research and development activities.

High-Level Waste

High-level radioactive wastes are the highly radioactive materials produced as a byproduct of the reactions that occur inside nuclear reactors. High-level wastes take one of two forms:

  • Spent (used) reactor fuel when it is accepted for disposal
  • Waste materials remaining after spent fuel is reprocessed

Spent nuclear fuel is used fuel from a reactor that is no longer efficient in creating electricity, because its fission process has slowed. However, it is still thermally hot, highly radioactive, and potentially harmful. Until either an alternative storage site or a permanent disposal repository for spent nuclear fuel is built, reactor or spent fuel storage licensees must safely store this fuel at their sites.

Reprocessing extracts isotopes from spent fuel that can be used again as reactor fuel. Commercial reprocessing is currently not practiced in the United States, although it has been allowed in the past. However, significant quantities of high-level radioactive waste are produced by the defense reprocessing programs at DOE facilities, such as Hanford, Washington, and Savannah River, South Carolina, and by commercial reprocessing operations at West Valley, New York. The management of these wastes prior to disposal is not regulated by NRC. However, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act states the wastes must be included in any high-level radioactive waste disposal plans, along with all spent reactor fuel.

Because of their highly radioactive fission products, high-level waste and spent fuel must be handled and stored with care. Since the only way high-level radioactive waste becomes harmless is through decay over hundreds of thousands of years, the wastes must be stored and finally disposed of in a way that provides adequate protection of the public for a very long time.

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Federal Agency Roles

United States policies governing the permanent disposal of HLW are defined by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended (NWPA). This Act specifies that HLW will be disposed of underground, in a deep geologic repository, and that Yucca Mountain, Nevada, will be the single candidate site for characterization as a potential geologic repository. Under the Act, the NRC is one of three Federal agencies with a role in the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, as well as the HLW from the Nation's nuclear weapons production activities:

  • The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for designing, constructing, operating, and decommissioning a permanent disposal facility for HLW, under NRC licensing and regulation.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for developing site-specific environmental standards for use in evaluating the safety of a geologic repository.
  • The NRC is responsible for developing regulations to implement the EPA's safety standards, and for licensing and overseeing the construction and operation of the repository. In addition, the NRC will consider any future DOE applications for license amendments to permanently close the repository, dismantle surface facilities, remove controls to restrict access to the site, or undertake any other activities involving an unreviewed safety question.

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Yucca Mountain

Illustration of DOE's Yucca Mountain Repository Design
Illustration of DOE's Yucca Mountain Repository Design -- an artist's rendering of a cutaway of the Yucca Mountain Repository showing a Tunnel in a storage container, and showing numbered areas: 1 - pointing to rail cars with the words: Processing site; 2 - a storage building; 3 - a ramp to tunnels; 4 - cross-section of tunnels; on the right side are arrows showing depth of 1,200 feet for the repository, and 800 feet below is a water table

  1. Canisters of waste, sealed in special casks, are shipped to the site by truck or train.
  2. Shipping casks are removed, and the inner tubes with the waste are placed in steel, multilayered storage containers.
  3. An automated system sends storage containers underground to the tunnels.
  4. Containers are stored along the tunnels, on their sides.

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Page Last Reviewed/Updated Thursday, March 12, 2020