The American Nuclear Society’s Special Committee on Generic Standards for Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste developed this report and recommendations for updated standards on the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste at future geological repository projects in the United States.

The report aims to provide recommended updates to the current U.S. geologic repository standards that are codified in the Environmental Protection Agency regulation 40 CFR Part 191 and apply to all sites except Yucca Mountain in Nevada.


WHAT ABOUT THE WASTE? “They don’t know what to do with the waste.” It’s a frequent criticism of nuclear energy—one that the nuclear industry has done a poor job of explaining.

In fact, the United States has a functioning system to safely manage nuclear waste from its nuclear power plants: low-level radioactive waste is compacted and shipped to regulated facilities for disposal. Highly radioactive waste materials, such as used nuclear fuel, are small in volume and exist in solid, stable forms. Used fuel is stored at reactor sites, first underwater in secure pools and then in robust, passively cooled dry storage systems.

The U.S. nuclear waste management system is missing one important piece, however: a long-term geologic repository. Like most other nations with nuclear plants, the U.S. has elected to dispose of its commercial used fuel directly in deep geologic formations, isolated from the environment. The site Congress has chosen for the U.S. repository, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, has been stalled by opposition from the state. Given the stalemate, policymakers are rethinking our nation’s approach, with consideration for consolidated interim storage and modified siting methods for waste facilities based on stakeholder consent. In addition, different and innovative technology approaches for management of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste are under development, such as advanced reprocessing methods for resource utilization and waste minimization, and borehole disposal of used fuel and other waste forms using well-established drilling techniques.

The future course in waste management is far from settled, but one fact is evident. There will be high-level radioactive waste that requires disposal, and that material will be emplaced in some sort of underground geologic repository or repositories. In fact, other countries are already proceeding down this path. Updated, transparent standards for long-term repository performance are needed to enable siting of future geologic disposal systems and engender public confidence in the safety of those facilities. The current U.S. geologic repository standards for all sites other than Yucca Mountain are codified in the Environmental Protection Agency regulation 40 CFR Part 191, Environmental Radiation Protection Standards for Management and Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel, High-Level and Transuranic Radioactive Wastes, and that regulation has served adequately for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. However, 40 CFR 191 is inconsistent with current international standards, lacks transparency, and is difficult to apply to certain disposal technologies. Accordingly, the American Nuclear Society Special Committee on Generic Standards for Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste has developed recommendations for updated standards that will ensure adequate protection of future inhabitants from the potential hazards posed by material emplaced in a geologic repository.

The country and the world need nuclear fission reactors as a clean, secure, reliable source of energy, both now and in the future. Those reactors have produced—and will continue to produce—relatively small volumes of waste that require geologic disposal. ANS has produced this report with the hope and expectation that it will prove to be a catalyst for the development of updated geologic repository standards by the EPA. That action will be a key building block for future progress on nuclear waste management, irrespective of what course of action policymakers ultimately choose to follow.

Portions of this report have appeared previously in draft form as conference papers presented at ANS’s 2022 International High-Level Radioactive Waste Management Conference in Phoenix, Arizona.

Last modified December 15, 2023, 10:02am CST