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How Much Nuclear Waste Does Your State Hold?

By Maxx Chatsko – Jul 27, 2013 at 10:30AM

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Three out of every four states in the United States contain nuclear waste. Uh-oh.

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 (EXC 2.72%) 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 (DUK 2.48%) 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 (SO 2.54%) 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 (GE 2.73%) 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?

Fool contributor Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio or his CAPS page, or follow him on Twitter, @BlacknGoldFool to keep up with his writing on energy, bioprocessing, and biotechnology.

The Motley Fool recommends Exelon and Southern. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

General Electric Company Stock Quote
General Electric Company
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Duke Energy Corporation Stock Quote
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The Southern Company Stock Quote
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