America's Nuclear Waste Backlog

December 4, 1981

Report Outline
Concern and Controversy
High-Level Waste Storage
Politics of Waste Disposal
Special Focus

Concern and Controversy

Decades of Nuclear Waste Accumulation

On Dec. 2, 1942, a team of scientists led by physicist Enrico Fermi produced the first controlled atomic reaction and launched the “nuclear age.” The products of nuclear technology, particularly nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation, have changed the world. They have also bequeathed a dubious legacy to future generations — 40 years of accumulated radioactive waste. The problem of nuclear waste disposal does not grab the headlines as often as nuclear weapons proliferation or nuclear power plant safety issues. Nonetheless, nuclear waste is one of the most perplexing environmental problems of our time. After almost four decades, the United States still lacks a national plan for nuclear waste disposal.

The first decades of the nuclear age were marked by a distinct lack of urgency concerning the disposal of nuclear waste. The emphasis was on production of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Assured by scientists that a safe, technical solution to the nuclear waste disposal problem was at hand, government authorities permitted wastes to collect in temporary storage facilities. Only after the temporary facilities became pressed for space, and the public's concern for the environment spread to nuclear waste, did the government accelerate its search for a permanent answer to the nuclear waste question.

When President Carter unveiled his plan for managing high-level radioactive wastes in February 1980, it was the first time that a U.S. president had advanced a comprehensive strategy for nuclear waste disposal. But the Carter administration did not succeed in winning congressional approval of the president's program.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Nuclear Power
Jun. 10, 2011  Nuclear Power
Jan. 28, 2011  Managing Nuclear Waste
Jan. 2007  Nuclear Proliferation
Mar. 10, 2006  Nuclear Energy
Jun. 08, 2001  Nuclear Waste
Jan. 22, 1993  Nuclear Fusion
Feb. 22, 1991  Will Nuclear Power Get Another Chance?
Dec. 05, 1986  Nuclear Reactor Safety
Jul. 29, 1983  Nuclear Power's Future
Dec. 04, 1981  America's Nuclear Waste Backlog
Sep. 12, 1980  Nuclear Fusion Development
Aug. 10, 1979  Determining Radiation Dangers
Dec. 03, 1976  Nuclear Waste Disposal
Aug. 22, 1975  Nuclear Safety
Aug. 04, 1971  Nuclear Power Options
Jun. 10, 1964  Atomic Power Development
Feb. 12, 1958  Radiation Hazards
Feb. 27, 1957  Atomic Power Race
Mar. 29, 1955  Atomic Energy for Industry
Apr. 24, 1946  Control of Atomic Energy
Hazardous Substances and Nuclear Waste
Nuclear Energy