How Nuclear Stations Manage “Waste” Materials

The U.S. nuclear industry’s commitment to protect public health and safety extends all the way to how nuclear stations handle by-products produced during electricity generation.

Even everyday items which have small amounts of radioactive material in them, like smoke detectors, must be shipped off site from a nuclear station when it’s time to dispose of them.

Similar to places like medical research laboratories, hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, universities and manufacturing facilities, nuclear stations produce by-products that contain low levels of radioactivity. These by-products are commonly called low-level radioactive waste (LLW). The radioactive material in low-level waste emits the same radiation that everyone receives from nature.

Examples of nuclear station LLW include gloves, personal protective clothing, glass and plastic lab supplies, machine parts, tools, water purification filters and resins, plant hardware and materials from reactor cooling-water cleanup systems.

Duke Energy, along with the nuclear industry, continuously evaluates new ways to minimize the amount of LLW generated. Much of this solid material can be shipped, following strict regulations established by the Department of Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), to a LLW disposal site. To prepare LLW materials for shipment (which is also regulated by the NRC), they are packaged in containers made with lead, concrete or other materials appropriate for protecting workers and the public.

Locations of the three commercial LLW disposal sites in the U.S. (Source: NRC)

There are three commercial land disposal facilities available for LLW, regulated by the NRC, but they only accept waste from certain states or limited types of low-level wastes. Where the material goes depends on what LLW category it falls under: 

  • Class A – represents approximately 95 percent of all LLW from all sources (nuclear stations, hospitals, etc.) and consists of nuclear station contaminated materials such as protective clothing, disposable items and scrap material. Duke Energy ships Class A materials from its nuclear stations to the EnergySolutions Clive, Utah, disposal site.
  • Class B/C – generally consists of nuclear station used resins and filters. Duke Energy’s Class B/C waste is sent to the EnergySolutions facility in Barnwell, S.C. Under current S.C. law, the Barnwell site is licensed for Class A, B and C wastes, but is closed to all states except South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey. This leaves 36 states, including North Carolina, where Duke Energy’s McGuire Nuclear Station is located, with no off-site disposal facility for Class B/C waste. However, it is expected that a newly licensed disposal facility in Texas will soon be able to accept waste from these 36 states.  In the meantime, LLW is safely and securely stored at McGuire in a specially designed area. 

Duke Energy continues to evaluate near and long-term options to further address low-level waste disposal. However, all Duke Energy-operated nuclear stations have years of safe LLW storage capacity with the ability to expand on site as needed.

Low-Level vs. High-Level

LLW materials should not be confused with high-level waste, which includes used nuclear fuel. In the U.S., there are currently no permanent disposal facilities for high-level waste, but these materials are safely and securely stored in used fuel pools or dry cask storage at nuclear stations. If all the used fuel produced in nearly 50 years of U.S. nuclear power plant operations was stacked end to end, it would cover a football field to a depth of less than 10 yards. Ninety-six percent of this material could be recycled. 

Duke Energy continues to support the government’s efforts to fulfill its obligation to accept and manage used nuclear fuel. Until a national repository or recycling is available, utilities will continue to safely and securely store used fuel at nuclear stations.

Get the Facts on Radiation: LLW has levels of radioactivity that decay to natural levels over time. For more information about radiation, check out this blog post.