SNF results from the once-through fuel cycle (i. e., no further processing conducted). It contains greater than 99% of the radioactivity and has unique characteristics compared to wastes from fossil plants. Because only about 5% of the energy value has been consumed in the reactor, it can also rep­resent a future energy resource. The energy release from nuclear fission per ton of fuel is about a million times greater than the energy release from the burning of fossil fuels. The waste volume generated is about a million times less. The quantity of SNF is small per unit of energy produced. The small quantity (-20 tons per reactor per year) makes multiple waste management options economically feasible: multiple direct disposal options and multiple options to process the SNF chemically for recovery of selected materials for recycle and/or conversion into different waste forms.

Table 18.3 DOE RAW classification

Waste class



High-level waste is the highly radioactive waste material resulting from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, including liquid waste produced directly in reprocessing and any solid material derived from such liquid waste containing fission products in sufficient concentrations; and other highly radioactive material determined, consistent with existing law, to require permanent isolation. a


Radioactive waste containing more than 3,700 becquerels (100 nanocuries) of alpha-emitting transuranic isotopes per gram of waste, with half-lives greater than 20 years, except for: (1) HLW, (2) waste the Secretary of Energy has determined, with the concurrence of the Administrator of EPA, does not need the degree of isolation required by the 40 CFR Part 191 disposal regulations; or (3) waste the NRC has approved for disposal on a case-by-case basis in accordance with 10 CFR Part 61.


Radioactive waste not HLW, spent fuel, TRU waste, byproduct material (as defined in section 11(e).2 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended), or naturally occurring radioactive material.

AEA Section 11e.(2) byproduct material

The tailings or wastes produced by the extraction or concentration of uranium or thorium from any ore processed primarily for its source material content.

a From the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended.

Reactors discharge SNF that contains fissile materials (fuel) and fission products (waste). The radioactivity and decay heat of SNF decreases rapidly with time; thus, to reduce handling risks and costs, SNF is stored before transport, disposal, or recycling. SNF storage is a required step in all open and closed fuel cycles. This is a consequence of the nuclear characteristics of SNF. The radioactivity decreases rapidly with time, resulting in radioac­tive decay heat and gamma radiation decreasing rapidly with time. There are large safety and economic incentives to allow the radioactivity of SNF to decrease before transport, processing, or disposal.

Upon reactor shutdown, SNF is intensely radioactive and generates large quantities of decay heat — equal to about 6% of the power output of the reactor. However, the radioactive decay heat decreases very rapidly reach­ing 0.5% in one week. The refueling strategy in light water reactors (LWRs) is to transfer the SNF from the reactor core to the SNF storage pool where the water provides cooling and radiation shielding. After about ten years, the radioactivity will decrease by another factor of 100.

If SNF is to be disposed of in a repository, it will likely be stored for approximately 40-60 years prior to disposal. Peak temperatures in a geo­logical repository are limited to ensure long-term repository performance. If the temperatures are too high, the performance of the waste form, waste package, and geology may be impaired. Peak repository temperatures would be controlled by limiting the allowable decay heat per waste package. If the SNF is stored for several decades, several advantages would result: the decay heat per ton of SNF decreases; more SNF can be placed in each waste package; the waste packages can be spaced closer to each other underground; the size (footprint) of the repository is reduced; and the cost of the repository is reduced. Like SNF, the HLW will be cooled for 40-60 years before ultimate disposal to reduce the decay heat.

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