The Energy Department dug this 25-foot-diameter tunnel under Yucca Mountain to explore its potential as a nuclear waste repository. Credit: US Department of Energy

Opportunities for US-Russian collaboration on the safe disposal of nuclear waste

The Energy Department dug this 25-foot-diameter tunnel under Yucca Mountain to explore its potential as a nuclear waste repository. Credit: US Department of Energy

Russia and the United States share a common legacy of nuclear waste production and a common need to safely and effectively manage this waste. Both have operated nuclear reactors for more than six decades. Today, nuclear energy accounts for roughly 20 percent of electricity generation in both the United States and Russia (US Energy Information Administration 2020; International Atomic Energy Agency 2020). This nuclear energy is unavoidably accompanied by the production of vast quantities of nuclear wastes. The United States possesses approximately 80,000 metric tons of civilian high-level radioactive waste; Russia possesses about 24,000 metric tons (Laverov 2016; Nuclear Energy Institute 2019). Much of this is in the form of spent fuel composed largely of uranium, as well as transmutation productions (e.g., plutonium, neptunium, and americium) and fission products (e.g., cesium, strontium, and iodine) produced during the irradiation of fuel (Bruno and Ewing 2006). Low level wastes resulting from nuclear energy generation, including contaminated clothing or equipment exposed to neutron irradiation, constitute another nuclear waste stream (Yim and Simonson 2000).

Alongside these civilian inventories, Russia and the United States possess the vast majority of the world’s weapons plutonium and highly enriched uranium—fissile materials from which nuclear weapons are constructed (International Panel on Fillile Materials 2015). Much of this material has been declared excess to military needs and must be disposed of. Furthermore, the past production of these fissile material stockpiles and of nuclear arsenals has yielded large quantities of radionuclide-contaminated wastes. This totals 340,000 metric tons of material in the United States, and likely similar quantities in Russia (US Department of Energy 1997).

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As the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows, nuclear threats are real, present, and dangerous

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