There are approximately 400,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel at hundreds of sites around the world. Several countries are proceeding steadily through research, licensing, and outreach to prepare for the construction and eventual operation of deep geological repositories (DGRs) for the permanent disposal of their spent nuclear fuel and high level waste.
Explore below to learn where spent nuclear fuel is currently located, how geological repositories are already being used for the disposal of low level nuclear waste, and how they are being developed for spent fuel disposal.
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Nuclear waste is in space.
Nuclear material has been used by the U.S. and Russia/USSR to power satellites in space since the 1960s. Around 1 ton of nuclear material is still in orbit.
Most is stored at ground level...
Currently, there are over 400,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) in storage at ground level in spent fuel pools or dry storage casks. This inventory increases by around 11,300 metric tons annually but is poised to increase even more in the near term as many reactors are scheduled to shut down before 2030. As inventories grow, capacity becomes insufficient, so a longer-term spent fuel management plan is needed.
...but it's headed underground.
The international consensus is that disposal underground is the best and safest way to manage spent fuel as it radioactively decays for hundreds of thousands of years. No country currently operates a deep geological repository (DGR) for spent fuel, but Finland’s DGR is under construction and expected to begin accepting spent fuel in the mid-2020s. Underground disposal can take many forms, but it always aims to safely and securely bury the SNF or waste out of harm’s way.
Spent fuel and radioactive waste can be found in many places in – and orbiting around – the world, whether in space, at ground level, or eventually deep underground. Countries with nuclear energy have grappled with how to manage spent fuel since the early days of nuclear power and spent fuel and waste inventories in storage continue to grow. Now, countries are advancing plans for deep geological repositories for spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste. Soon, spent fuel will move underground, beginning a new era of spent fuel and radioactive waste management.
More from the Nuclear Safeguards Program's Back-end to the Future project
Investigating the resiliency of the international safeguards system, particularly with regard to emerging technologies and facilities
Learn more about the front-end of the fuel cycle: Mining, milling and conversion.