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U.S. nuclear waste stocks, today and projected


In Reinventing Fire, Rocky Mountain Institute investigates the implications of four radically different future electricity scenarios. One of these cases, Migrate, foresees a U.S. grid relying on nuclear power for 36% of annual generation. The required ramp-up of nuclear power would generate around 160,000 tons of nuclear waste over the next 40 years.

While the Maintain case significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions from a “business-as-usual” case, it will also generate an enormous quantity of high-level nuclear waste— around 160,000 tons over the next 40 years. This is more than double the existing stock of U.S. nuclear waste from spent fuel. Together, the existing and new waste would fill the proposed (but since withdrawn) Yucca Mountain, NV storage facility three times over.

Because there is currently no permanent nuclear waste storage facility, most spent fuel in the U.S. is stored onsite at reactors across the country. In the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, most of the radioactivity released actually came from spent fuel stored onsite rather than from the active fuel in use in the reactors. Any future U.S. electricity system that relies heavily on nuclear power will need to carefully address the issue of waste storage.


Alvarez, Robert and Jan Beyea, et al. 2003. “Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States.” Science & Global Security 11 (1):1. link

Energy Information Administration. 2002. Annual Spent Fuel Discharges and Burnup, 1968–2002. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Energy.

Peterson, Per. 2003. “Will the United States Need a Second Geologic Repository?” The Bridge, National Academy of Engineering 33 (3). link