Spent reactor fuel is highly irradiated uranium oxide encased in stainless steel or Zircaloy jackets. The composition is about 96 percent uranium, 3 percent fission products, 1 percent plutonium and other long-lived actinides. Besides the radioactivity hazard, some of the plutonium emits neutrons, so the spent fuel must be stored with spacing so that a nuclear reaction cannot occur. The spent fuel can be considered a packaged waste, and not a threat for release to the environment.
About 90 percent of the 104 U.S. nuclear power reactors are located in the eastern third of the country. Shipping the spent fuel rods to Yucca Mountain involves at least a 1,000- to 1,500-mile trip, probably in a shielded cask in a manner to be determined. I can envision several paranoid committees deciding on regulations for the shipping cask, how many casks per car and per trainload, speed of the train, etc., all guided by the goal of keeping shipments safe against every possible hazard up to and including an asteroid strike.
It will not escape veterans of the Savannah River Plant that the mothballed 221-F building would serve as an excellent temporary 100- to 200-year storage site. But it’s the same problem. How do you get it there?