Although the nuclear waste storage problem has not yet reached crisis proportions, it is a chronic, complex issue that defies societal consensus, even within the scientific community. Each category of nuclear waste--high-level, low-level, and transuranic (TRU)--presents unique challenges for containment. All are potentially dangerous; at issue is the selection of the best options for long-term storage.
High-level nuclear waste is comprised of spent fuel from private sector and military reactors, as well as the liquids remaining from fuel processed for atomic weaponry. Used reactor fuel is considered intensely hot and irradiated. High-level nuclear wastes have long half-lives and are considered permanent hazards. (Half-life describes the amount of time required for 50 percent of a reactor fuel's original radioactivity to decay.) High-level nuclear waste depositories must be guarded indefinitely, and require deep storage. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is the federal agency responsible for the disposal of high-level nuclear wastes.
Irradiated uranium fuel, in widespread use among commercial nuclear power plants, is considered to be the most dangerous radioactive waste on earth. Although minuscule as a percentage of the volume of all high-level nuclear waste generated in the United States, commercial nuclear power plants are major producers of radioactivity: "Commercial nuclear power plants account for 95 percent of the radioactivity from all civilian and military sources combined" (Lenssen 9).
Low-level nuclear wastes present significantly less of a hazard than high-level wastes. Low-level wastes contain short-lived radioactive materials that emanate from such sources as hospital medical isotopes and contaminated refuse from commercial nuclear power plants. Some low-level wastes contain elements of high-level radioactivity, but it is usually in very low concentrations. Also, some low-level wastes contain ...