How Much Nuclear Waste Does Your State Hold?

One of the biggest critiques of nuclear energy is that it produces radioactive waste in the form of used nuclear fuel, or UNF. While the amounts are relatively small -- just 20 metric tons per power plant annually -- they remain radioactive for periods of time that are difficult for humans to comprehend. The waste adds up across the 100 nuclear reactors currently in operation across the United States. At last count, the country's atomic fleet had produced approximately 69,720 metric tons of UNF over the past four decades.

More than 50 sites across the country are licensed for dry cask storage of spent nuclear fuel. Source: NRC.gov  

Where does it all go? Power plants first store waste on-site in steel-lined concrete pools. After maxing out capacity, however, waste is stored in large dry casks similar to the ones pictured above. They may look intimidating, but there has never been a radiation leak since dry storage techniques were implemented in 1986.

Phew! No worries. But really, do you live in a state that hoards radioactive waste?

State-by-state breakdown
You may think that just because your state doesn't have a nuclear power station it doesn't have any nuclear waste. Of course, you may be wrong. While 31 states have an operating reactor, 38 contain at least some nuclear waste. That means seven states have really persuasive leaders! Here's how it plays out for each state (numbers in metric tons):

Source: Nuclear Energy Institute.   

If you live in one of the 12 white-colored states on the map above, you're in the clear. For the rest of us, living within the same borders as spent fuel is just reality. Obviously, the states with more generating capacity will generate and therefore store more waste. The top 10 states hold 64% of all UNF in the United States.

State

Metric tons of UNF

Illinois

9,010

Pennsylvania

6,290

South Carolina

4,210

New York

3,720

North Carolina

3,670

Alabama

3,320

Florida

3,040

California

2,970*

Georgia

2,690

New Jersey

2,660

Source: Nuclear Energy Institute.
*California's total was updated as of Dec. 31, 2012 and is higher than what appears on the map. Sorry, California.

Who are the biggest culprits? Exelon (NYSE: EXC  ) is responsible for the majority of the waste currently being held in Illinois and Pennsylvania (that comes naturally with 19,000 MW of annual nuclear capacity). It has managed to persuade Idaho to store used fuel from its Three Mile Island reactors, however. The reactors and storage facility are more than 2,400 miles away. Sneaky, sneaky.

Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK  ) feeds the nuclear-heavy grids of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. Not surprisingly, it ranks second in the nation with 11,350 MW of nuclear capacity. Rounding out the top three is Southern (NYSE: SO  ) with 8,280 MW of annual capacity. The company maintains three facilities in Georgia and Alabama, although it doesn't necessarily contribute the most spent fuel in either state. Either way, the figures in the preceding table make plenty of sense when you look at where the largest atomic powerhouses produce their power.

Is it really all bad news?
The good news that gets relatively little attention is that each power generator pays into the national Nuclear Waste Fund with every fuel purchase. If every nuclear power plant were decommissioned tomorrow, the industry would need approximately $31.9 billion. Luckily, more than $22.5 billion has already been funded -- the remainder will be collected over the next 20 years.

That still doesn't solve the problem of the waste itself. Just as the industry transitioned from pool to dry cask storage out of necessity, I believe it will eventually make the leap to full fuel recycling technology. Partners Hitachi and General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) have pioneered the PRISM reactor -- a generation 4 reactor (all reactors in use today are generation 3 or lower) -- which is powered by spent nuclear fuel. Perhaps the pair will receive funding directly from the Nuclear Waste Fund for their technology in the next decade or two.

Still skeptical? Before you build a bunker in your backyard, stop and take a deep breath. You shouldn't feel any differently now than you did before you opened this article. There is certainly a UNF storage problem forming on the horizon, but to date there have been zero leaks concerning energy-related waste with current technology. Admittedly, only novel reactor designs, such as PRISM, can truly make a dent in the pile of nuclear waste your state is hoarding. I'm optimistic that it is only a matter of time before one is built. Are you?

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Read/Post Comments (29) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 12:14 PM, AllenElliott wrote:

    Is it any wonder this planet will have to be completely destroyed and rebuilt.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 12:37 PM, ahille wrote:

    I'm confused. When I used to live in New Mexico, I took a dirt road shortcut to work each morning past a WIPP site, which I later saw on a PBS documentary indicated it was nuclear waste storage site. But your map shows no nuclear waste storage in NM. Was the WIPP site relocated to another state in the last 15 years?

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 12:39 PM, lm1b2 wrote:

    When they built the Perry Nuclear Plant in Ohio we were told the Radioactive Waste was to be shipped out to a Western State,Nevada i believe ! But guess what they lied,its being stored on site in the second Nuclear Tower they never used.Its just like the other lie we were told,they said the plant was to be shut down after 20 years,they just applied recently for another 20 year license,and our Representatives in Washington have done nothing to stop them.We have had "accident" after "accident" at this plant,and the Davis Besse plant.Just say no to Nuclear Power Folks,that is My advice!

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 12:44 PM, WayneJ55 wrote:

    Of course they lied. When it comes to money they always lie. Maybe when we look at what our planet would look like in a few years. Look at some of the other planets in our solar system? We could be like one of those. Barren and uninhabitable. Give it time because that is where we are heading with nuclear energy waiste. Not to mention everything else that is killing our planet. God bless.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 12:48 PM, USvoter wrote:

    The public has no idea just how irresponsible it is to the population and to humanity to use nuclear fission to create power. Spent nuclear fuel is bio-toxic for 100,000 years, 20 times the length of recorded human history. The number is so large it is incomprehensible, so we simply put it out of our minds and allow this nightmare to go on. We have produced enough deadly waste to kill every animal on the planet, 100 times over 50,000 years from now. There is theoretical technology (nuclear fusion) that could detoxify this mess- we should focus on that!

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 12:51 PM, sherryjakey wrote:

    Much to my surprise my state holds no nuclear waste. But.....we here in Nevada may end up with everyone else's. If so, those who use our wild and beautiful areas as a dump site will pay out the nose.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 1:02 PM, Kngrthr wrote:

    There's alot more in dem dar hills that they won't tell America know about, disgusting.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 1:18 PM, GRLCowan wrote:

    It's to Fool Maxx Chatzko's credit that he acknowledges ...

    "to date there have been zero leaks concerning energy-related waste with current technology".

    To be more precise, there has been zero leakage of used *nuclear* fuel and zero public harm from it. Leakage of used fossil fuel is the rule rather than the exception, and when the used fossil fuel is in the form of carbon monoxide, it routinely kills.

    Some of the comments refer to government, or an unspecified "they", as having lied about this. That doesn't work the way they think it does. Royalties and excise taxes on fossil fuels mean that with every carbon monoxide death comes a hefty chunk of government income.

    Therefore when governments lie about nuclear power, their lies are in the direction of exaggerating hazards, or indeed suggesting they exist when they don't.

    The commentator who said "the public has no idea just how irresponsible it is to the population and to humanity to use nuclear fission to create power" is, again, right -- but not the way he thinks he is. If the public ever *did* get such an idea, a lot of antinuclear activists might soon be hanging from lampposts.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 1:20 PM, dbenitez30 wrote:

    Just some input here, they didn't "lie". Nuclear fuel stops being economically fissable after approximately 18 months, however that does not mean it isn't still radioactive. The spent fuel, as it is called, is still "hot" and needs to "cool" before it is able to be moved off site. This is the case with all nuclear fuel. Think of it this way you can't just grab ashes after a fire goes out, you need to let it cool first.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 1:24 PM, GRLCowan wrote:

    Sorry, Chatsko not Chatzko.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 1:53 PM, nmshooter wrote:

    The story is at least incorrect in that it states New Mexico has no radioactive waste. If they are wrong at that, I wonder how wrong they are in other parts of the story.

    The WIPP near Carlsbad has been active for many years now and is still active today in storing radioactive waste from many states. Its buried in salt several thousand feet below the surface. I dont believe its fuel, but its still waste.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 1:59 PM, nmshooter wrote:

    As of July 22nd, 2013, New Mexico's WIPP site near Carlsbad has received

    Contact-handled

    transuranic

    waste volume

    87,381 cubic meters

    Remote-handled

    transuranic

    waste volume

    341 cubic meters

    http://www.wipp.energy.gov/shipments.htm

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 2:42 PM, jroby93 wrote:

    you people are the most cynical people i've ever heard. you act like the government is trying to kill us all. there are safety protocols believe it or not. all the radioactive fuel is stored in concrete once it is unusable which wouldn't be done if it wasn't effective

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 3:34 PM, nmshooter wrote:

    sure jroby, accidents NEVER happen. ;)

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 3:47 PM, GRLCowan wrote:

    jroby93 says, "you people are the most cynical people i've ever heard. you act like the government is trying to kill us all", meaning, I trust, everyone except

    Government has no reason to kill *everyone*. But hobbling nuclear energy and thereby getting increased natural gas revenue is very lucrative for government, and does amount to requiring the deaths of a few of us.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 3:53 PM, k1w1b1 wrote:

    The sad part about this is that when US companies built some nuclear plants in Mexico, the US and Mexico entered into an agreement that they would ship the waste products by rail to the US and we would store them.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 4:05 PM, normgarry wrote:

    Nuclear waste is a greater danger than "carbon dioxide" and greenhouse gases. We can adapt to hotter temperatures and flooding but we can't adapt to radiation poisoning.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 4:19 PM, GRLCowan wrote:

    "The sad part about this is that when US companies built some nuclear plants in Mexico, the US and Mexico entered into an agreement that they would ship the waste products by rail to the US and we would store them" -- there's nothing sad about that.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 4:42 PM, Petronilus wrote:

    Dry cask storage is safe only for a tiny fraction of the time of the material being dangerous. The full cost of safely storing UNF becomes astronomically high when you consider that it is highly dangerous for many 1000s of years.

    Our current generation is probably at the peak of human mankind causing long-term harm to our planet. Better solutions are needed like wind, solar. Thorium reactors and hopefully some day fusion reactors.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 4:49 PM, mahdeealoo wrote:

    I would get the waste away from coastlines and fault lines. Did we not learn from the Japan Earthquake/Tsunami disaster?

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 5:20 PM, GRLCowan wrote:

    "I would get the waste away from coastlines and fault lines. Did we not learn from the Japan Earthquake/Tsunami disaster?" -- yes. We learned that even in a natural disaster severe enough to cause multiple meltdowns, with workers who knew their families, not protected by the walls of a nuclear plant, might already be lost in the Pacific, the nuclear waste was prevented from doing any harm.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 6:24 PM, goliath480 wrote:

    How much nuclear waste does any state hold? Easy answer. Count the number of registered Democrats, and the lefties who voted for a Democrat.

    BAM! There's your answer

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 8:07 PM, WobblyWorldFool wrote:

    ONE WORD : GEOTHERMAL. . . .

    THE ONLY SAFE ECOLOGICALLY SUSTAINABLE WORLD ENERGY SOURCE. . .

    One such option that is often ignored is geothermal energy, produced from both conventional hydrothermal and Enhanced (or engineered) Geothermal Systems ...

    http://mitei.mit.edu/publications/reports-studies/future-geo...

    For a quick view :

    http://www1.eere.energy.gov/geothermal/faqs.html

    http://blog.davies-smith.com/10-hot-facts-about-geothermal-e...

    It's clean, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, an almost unlimited amount of energy, can be tapped almost anywhere, emissions are low, is easily integrated into communities with almost no visual impact, does not require storage, transportation, or combustion of fuels,has long-term sustainability, the initial cost for the field and power plant is LOW around $3500 per installed kW in the U.S, has low operating and maintenance costs range from $0.01 to $0.03 per kWh, is ideal to provide base load, the energy produced cost $0.05 per kWh. . . .

    WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE ABOUT GEOTHERMAL POWER !!!!!!!

    It will only happen though if industry, people,and governments, that is us Fools get on board and push this blindingly obvious technology to the forefront. . .

    Just think if Japan (On the ring of fire.) had gone

    down the geothermal route instead of nuclear, there would be no meltdown in Fukushima nuclear plants, so just say. . .

    "Nuclear power – no thanks"

    To a sustainable and happy future!!

    Regards from Wobbly World. . .

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 8:23 PM, USvoter wrote:

    I was not specific enough in my comment above. The major nuclear waste product from spent nuclear fuel rods has a half life of 12,500 years. Other isotopes are shorter or much longer. Try to imagine the claim that anyone will keep this waste "safe", for the 6 or 8 half-lives required for it to decay (80-96,000 years). The USA will be a forgotten memory when even one half life has passed! The first job is to end nuclear fission ASAP, the second is to find a way (such as nuclear fusion) to detoxify the isotopes. In less than 70 years, our nuclear industry has produced enough weapons to destroy humanity, and enough waste that humanity could be destroyed any time in the next 100,000 years!

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 10:37 PM, Nuke5059 wrote:

    So exactly when did the Fool go anti-nuke?

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 11:01 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @Nuke5059

    We all have different opinions, but I am in no way anti-nuke. Read some of my previous work on nuclear energy ("30 Facts That Demystify Nuclear Energy") to get a better handle on my opinion.

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2013, at 11:48 PM, Dookie58 wrote:

    Just having UNF on this list means very little. Fuel for nuclear power plants is low-enriched nuclear fuel. While you don't want UNF laying around in the open, I would be much more concerned about waste left over from the weapons programs when we were producing enriched plutonium.

    This list shows that NM, NV and WA shouldn't be concerned about UNF, but nothing about nuclear waste at the Nevada Test Site. That's why the state and DOE fought to close the Yucca Mountain Site, they already have all the waste from underground nuclear testing, about 1200 of them. All the waste is sealed underground for however long it takes plutonium to decay, only several hundred thousand years. Washington state has the Hanford Site right next to the Columbia River and South Carolina has the Savannah River Site. People have mentioned the WIPP site, but that transuranic waste, not as bad as plutonium waste.

  • Report this Comment On July 28, 2013, at 7:43 AM, GRLCowan wrote:

    Just having *either* used nuclear fuel *or* radioactivity due to bomb-making means very little on a radioactive planet such as ours.

    Plutonium is hazardous due to its radioactivity, and in the time when nuclear waste is really dangerous, it is so because of other, much hotter materials than plutonium. The arithmetic for making these comparisons is quite difficult, so much so that even when computer programs such as ORIGEN2 make it easy, it's still difficult.

    However, "Spent Fuel Explorer", a front end for presenting some ORIGEN2 results, is free on the web, and makes it a lot easier again.

    With its "decay heat" setting we can learn that 1.1 days after shutdown, nuclear fuel that has been working at 39 thermal megawatts per tonne is still producing 0.1925 megawatts per tonne.

    There is a timeline with a slider you can drag with your mouse, and a pie chart showing how the heat production is divided between isotopes. Slide it far enough to the right and the red pie slices that represent plutonium grow to half of the total. This happens at 1220 years, and the heat due to plutonium is 0.00002676 megawatts per tonne.

    Because its half-lives are so long, this is pretty much the same heat it was producing at 1.1 days. So at that time, the fraction of the rays that are due to it is rather small: 0.00002676/0.1925.

    If there were genuine, informed concern over plutonium, the Greenpeace associate photographed with a nuclear icebreaker at http://www.projectthinice.org/blog/view/3444/ might be expected to be about 1925/0.2676 times more concerned, 7200 times more concerned, about the other radioactivity in that boat's two reactor cores.

  • Report this Comment On July 28, 2013, at 7:54 AM, GRLCowan wrote:

    I notice Maxx Chatsko's fact 24 in "30 Facts That Demystify Nuclear Energy" is a uranium-to-natural-gas price ratio of 0.51. This must be on some apples-to-rice-grains basis of comparison.

    The most sensible basis is equal energy, and on that basis, with natural gas at $4 per MMBTU and uranium at $0.155 per MMBTU, the ratio is 0.039.

    The largeness of $0.50 or $0.75 in royalties on the $4 gas deal, compared to the whole U price, explains much of the eagerness governments show in hobbling nuclear energy.

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