Nuclear Waste in Virginia

nuclear fuel assembly Virginia produces two types of nuclear waste, low-level and high-level radioactive waste.

High-level radioactive waste comes from nuclear power plants. Virginia's four civilian reactors "burn" uranium pellets that were placed in fuel rods, and carefully aligned in fuel assemblies, to produce electricity. When a certain percentage of the uranium has decayed, the spent fuel assemblies are treated as high-level radioactive waste.

Low-level radioactive waste includes radioactively contaminated protective clothing, tools, filters, and rags from nuclear power plant maintenance and operations, plus some medical facility wastes and a few other items. Low-level waste is categorized into three classes. Class A wastes have the lowest concentration of radioactive materials, mostly materials with half-lives of less than five years. Class B wastes have longer half-lives than Class A materials, while Class C wastes have longer half-lives than Class B materials - but still lower than high-level radioactive waste.

If Virginia permits mining of the rich uranium deposit at Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County, the state may start to generate mill tailings, a third form of radioactive waste. A fourth form, transuranic waste, is generated from the reprocessing of nuclear fuel and production of nuclear weapons involving plutonium. There is no reprocessing or nuclear weapons production in Virginia, so the state should not end up shipping transuranic wastes to the national repository for such material, a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Congress accepted responsibility to designate locations for high-level nuclear waste disposal, such as spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants, in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. In 1987, Congress selected Yucca Mountain in Nevada to be the permanent nuclear waste repository. Despite spending $12 billion on the site, Congress defunded implementation of that decision in 2010 - when the Majority Leader in the US Senate was Harry Reid from Nevada.1

None of Virginia's low-level or high-level radioactive waste is recycled or reprocessed. All of it is intended to be managed for thousands of years at specialized disposal sites. Where does it go?

Low-Level Radioactive Waste

Congress defined low-level radioactive waste disposal to be a state responsibility in the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980. Congress encouraged the states to negotiate interstate copacts and establish several regional disposal sites for low-level radioactive waste disposal. Regional partnerships, with the ability to exclude low-level radioactive waste generated outside the boundaries of the partnerships, were documented in various interstate compacts ratified by the US Congress starting in 1986.

Virginia joined the Southeast Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Compact, together with Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina in 1984 (it received Congressional approval in 1986). Each state was required to search for a suitable disposal site for low-level radioactive waste, knowing that few places wanted radioactive waste in their neighborhood and that the political impacts of the decision would be a problem for the second host state.

At the time, Virginia shipped its low-level radioactive waste to Barnwell, South Carolina. It was one of only a handful of facilities nationwide that accepted low-level radioactive waste. Under the terms of the compact, the South Carolina facility was projected to close at the end of 1992. South Carolina expected one of the other states in the compact to open a replacement facility. South Carolina was willing to be the first of the "host" states in its compact, but did not want to get a reputation as a nuclear dumping ground.

Virginia focused on the Southside region, plus Louisa County, for its nuclear waste disposal site.2

Criteria for selecting the site were:3
- amount of potentially suitable area (PSA)
- volume of A/B/C waste generated
- transportation distances from low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) generators for A/B/C waste
- density of transportation systems in potentially suitable areas
- population density of potentially suitable areas
- meteorology of potentially suitable areas

In 1986, the Southeast Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Compact decided that a new low-level radioactive waste facility should be located in North Carolina in Wake County, near the Chatham County line. North Carolina orginally supported the compact's decision. To sweeten the deal, compact members contributed $80 million for geological and other studies of the site, by imposing fees on generators of nuclear waste who shipped it to Barnwell. North Carolina spent an additional $30 million.4

When North Carolina's project kept missing milestones for obtaining a license and opening a new disposal site, South Carolina agreed to extend the closure date of Barnwell until 1996. In exchange, the state's legislature required that significant revenues be generated for South Carolina. Fees for using Barnwell were jacked up. After South Carolina became fond of the high revenue stream, it requested that the compact allow Barnwell to accept radioactive wastes produced at states outside the compact. The other states blocked that request, and in 1995 South Carolina withdrew from the compact.5

South Carolina joined a new compact. It closed Barnwell to shipments of radioactive waste from North Carolina, but allowed generators in other states to use the facility until 2008. Today, Barnwell accepts low-level radioactive waste produced only within the boundaries of South Carolina and the other two members of the Atlantic Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Compact - Connecticut and New Jersey.

South Carolina's withdrawal blocked the remaining states from collecting new fees from waste generators, and the compact could no longer subsidize North Carolina's effort to open the site in Wake County. After the remaining states in the Southeast Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Compact notified North Carolina that it would have to complete the development of the new waste disposal site without additional funding, that project came to a halt. In 1999, the compact "sanctioned" North Carolina, but the US Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that North Carolina would not be forced to repay $80 million (plus $10 million in legal fees) to the other states.6

Virginia continued to ship its low-level radioactive waste to Barnwell until 2008. A facility in Clive, Utah can accept Class A waste from Virginia now, but generators of Class B and Class C waste have to store it on-site until that Utah site (or a new disposal site) has the capability to accept Class B and Class C low-level radioactive wastes.

High-Level Radioactive Waste

High-level radioactive waste is created by four nuclear power reactors at two sites in Virginia (Surry and Lake Anna), plus by various nuclear-powered ships of the Navy traveling in and out of Hampton Roads. Navy waste, produced by nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, is stored at the Savannah River Plant in Aiken, South Carolina, at the Hanford Reservation in Richland, Washington, or at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

In addition, high-level wastes from foreign reactors (originally supplied with nuclear fuel from the United States) have been shipped through Portsmouth, Virginia to Federal storage facilities in South Carolina or Idaho. A Sierra Club lawsuit blocked such shipments through Virginia in 1988, and East Coast shipments were redirected to the military port at Charleston, South Carolina.7

At the moment, all high-level radioactive waste generated in Virginia by civilian nuclear power plants is still stored temporarily in Virginia. The nuclear plants at North Anna and Surry are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as "Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations," but these are intended to be temporay storage locations. The waste will be dangerously radioactive for thousands of years, while the nuclear power plants plants will be decommissioned in decades.

Each of the four civilian power reactors operated by Dominion Resources contains 157 fuel assemblies. Each fuel assembly consists of 204 fuel rods, loaded with 328 ceramic pellets - so over 16 million pellets are used to generate heat to power the reactor. Each pellet has the energy equivalent to 1800 pounds of coal. When the uranium has decayed so much that nuclear fission is no longer creating sufficient heat, the utility company "refuels" the reactor and replaces the fuel assemblies.8

Currently, "spent" fuel assemblies are stored at the Surry and North Anna nuclear power plants. Rods are kept in pools of water to keep the radioactive waste from melting them for 5-10 years, then transferred to "dry casks" for storage outdoors on a concrete pad. Rather than build new pools to accommodate "temporary" storage of nuclear waste at North Anna and Surry, Virginia Power obtained the first Federal approval to use dry storage technology and opened the first dry cask storage facility in the nation at Surry, followed by one at North Anna.9

The 115-ton dry casks sit on concrete pads, separated from each other with gaps defined by Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations as the waste in each cask cools for thousands of years. In the 2011 earthquake, 25 of the 27 casks shifted, some as much as 4.5 inches, but none were damaged. The utility and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that leaving the casks in their new positions was safer than trying to restore the original gaps.10

power plant nuclear waste in pool
power plant nuclear waste stored in pool
Source: Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Science, Society, and America's Nuclear Waste,
Radiation Exposures: Sources, Doses, and Protection

dry cask storage at Surry Nuclear Power Plant
dry cask storage at Surry Nuclear Power Plant
Source: US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Radioactive Waste: Production, Storage, Disposal (NUREG/BR-0216, Revision 2)," page 11

To move the spent fuel assemblies from the wet pool into dry casks, the casks are first placed inside the pool. The fuel rods are loaded into the casks, the lid of the cask is sealed, water is pumped out, and finally helium is pumped into the cask. Storage in the casks requires far less maintenance than storage in the pools, reducing cost of short-term storage while awaiting completion of the permanent repository. (The US Congress directed that Yucca Mountain in Nye County, Nevada be excavated and prepared as a national repository for storing all high level waste from commercial reactors by 1998, but the Department of Energy missed the deadline.)

national map of current waste locations
national map of current waste locations
Source: US Department of Energy, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Image Gallery

The Federal government initially proposed developing one facility for disposal of high-level radioactive wastes in the western US, and one in the eastern states. In the 1980's, the Department of Energy considered three locations in Virginia for an east-of-the-Mississippi River site. The three Virginia locations were 209 square miles in Bedford County, 307 square miles on the border straddling both Halifax/Pittsylvania counties, and 64 square miles in Goochland, Hanover and Louisa counties.11

In 1986, the Reagan Administration decided to focus on the western site, choosing between Yucca Mountain, Nevada; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Hanford, Washington. It dropped efforts to choose a site in the east, where choices had been narrowed to Virginia, Georgia, Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina and New Hampshire.

In 1987, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was selected after both scientific assessments and a political decision known in Nevada as the "screw Nevada" bill. Nevada responded to its concerns about becoming a "national sacrifice area" by increasing its political influence, in part by becoming an early primary state with heightened significance for nominating candidates for president and in part by getting US Senator Harry Reid chosen as Majority Leader of the US Senate. Since Congress killed funding for Yucca Mountain in 2010, no other state has indicated a willingness to accept high-level radioactive waste.

The volume of waste to be managed is small. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated in 2011 that the 65,000 metric tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel was "enough to fill a football field nearly 15 feet deep." Even if current volume doubles by 2055 as projected by GAO, the total would be still be roughly 150,000 cubic yards - small enough to fit in a single Northern Virginia basalt quarry, if you ignored all the concerns about radiation.12

Centralizing high-level nuclear waste waste will centralize the security, environmental, and other risks, including the political headache of determining which location in the United States will be a permanent "national sacrifice area" dedicated to maintaining nuclear waste in a safe condition for tens of thousands of years before radioactivity naturally declines to safe levels. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.

There may be an economy of scale that justifies centralization of high-level nuclear waste, but centralization will also require transport of the waste from Virginia to Nevada - or wherever. The preferred tranportation process involves placing waste in special casks that are supposed to be able to withstand accidents or terrorist attack, then shipping the casks on rail cars. A railroad line built to the North Anna plant for its construction is still operational, but there is no rail connection to the Surry plant. Casks of nuclear waste from Surry will have to be shipped by truck, or by barge on the James River, to a rail line that will allow transport to a final destination.

how nuclear waste might get to Nevada from Virginia
how nuclear waste might get to Nevada from Virginia
Source: Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, Nuclear Waste Transportation Routes (1995)

There are no reprocessing plants to recycle spent fuel rods coming from nuclear power plants. That approach, while technically feasible, isolates plutonium from the rods. President Carter banned reprocessing in the United States, responding to fears of plutonium being used to produce unsanctioned nuclear weapons.

The Federal government established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982 that it would own the high-level nuclear waste once it was removed from nuclear power plants. The government collected fees from utilities since 1983 to fund a permanent waste repository, and committed to accept high level radioactive waste for disposal somewhere by 1998. Congress over-rode the objections from Nevada and mandated use of Yucca Flats, but then changed its mind and blocjked funding for that site in 2010.

Bottom Line: Federal efforts have failed to open any waste disposal facilty for permanent storage of high-level radioactive waste.

There is no clear alternative to permanent storage at Yucca Mountain. After the 1998 deadline, the Federal government has been obliged to pay utilities for continued temporary storage of high-level waste at the reactor sites. The Nuclear Waste Fund had $23 billion in 2013 (including $740 million from Dominion Power, which had earned an additional $600 million in interest by 2011) but no repository for disposal.13

planned barge routes for transporting nuclear waste from Virginia
Planned barge routes for transporting nuclear waste from Virginia to Nevada
Source: Environmental Working Group

planned truck/rail routes for transporting nuclear waste from Virginia
Planned truck/rail routes for transporting nuclear waste from
Virginia nuclear power plants to Yucca Mountain, Nevada
Source: Environmental Working Group (extract from the
Environmental Impact Statement for the repository at Yucca Mountain)



1. "GAO: Death of Yucca Mountain Caused by Political Maneuvering," New York Times, May 10, 2011, (last checked November 11, 2013)
2. "Virginia Faces Struggle for Nuclear Storage Site, The Free-Lance Star, April 30, 1982,,4212841 and "Focus Shifts In Search For Nuclear Waste Dump Site," The Free-Lance Star, April 18, 1983,,2464105 (last checked November 13, 2009)
3. Policies and Motions: Compilation of policies and motions passed by the Southeast Compact Commission since 1983, "Revision of Technical Criteria for Tract Designation Adopted 4/26/85" (approved December 2, 1985), (last checked November 13, 2009)
4. Second Report of the Special Master, in State of Alabama, State of Florida, State of Tennessee, Commonwealth of Virginia, and the Southeast Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management vs. North Carolina, April 2009, (last checked November 13, 2009)
5. "Where is the Waste Going?" paper by Sherol Bremen, Ted Buckner, J.D. and Kathryn Visocki, at the Department of Energy Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Conference, March 1993,; Ted Buckner, Kathryn Haynes, "Alabama et al v. North Carolina: Analysis of & Lessons Learned from the U.S. Supreme Court's Decision," panel presentation to the LLW Forum Inc., Southeast Compact Commission, September 27, 2010, (last checked November 11, 2013)
6. Congressional Research Service report IB92059, Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal, July 30, 2001, (last checked November 11, 2013)
7. Dr. E.J. Bentz, Jr., C.B. Bentz, and T.D. O'Hora, Dr. S.Y Chen, "Legal Precedents Regarding Use and Defensibility Of Risk Assessment In Federal Transportation Of SNF and HLW," April 14, 1997, Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Investigation, (last checked November 13, 2009)
8. as described by interpretive exhibits at Dominion Resources' civilian nuclear power plant at Surry
9. "Radioactive Waste," Virginia Department of Health, (last checked November 13, 2009)
10. "Quake-shaken nuclear fuel storage units can stay put, agency says," The Roanoke Times, February 11, 2014, (last checked February 16, 2014)
11. "Baliles Calls A-Waste Sites In Va. Unfit; Geologic Faults And Flooding Cited," Washington Post, March 24, 1986, p.B3
12. "Commercial Nuclear Waste: Effects of a Termination of the Yucca Mountain Repository Program and Lessons Learned," Government Accountability Office, GAO-11-229, April 8, 2011, (last checked November 11, 2013)
13. "The Elusive Permanent Repository," Union of Concerned Scientists, August 15, 2013,; "Nuclear Waste Fund Payment Information by State," Nuclear Energy Institute,,-Operation,-Waste-Disposal-Life-Cycle/Nuclear-Waste-Fund-Payment-Information-by-State (last checked November 11, 2013)

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