In This Issue
Summer Issue of The Bridge on Managing Nuclear Waste
June 15, 2012 Volume 42 Issue 2

Enhancing the Acceptability and Credibility of a Repository for Spent Nuclear Fuel

Friday, June 15, 2012

Author: Hank C. Jenkins-Smith, Carol L. Silva, Kerry G. Herron, Sarah R. Trousset, and Rob P. Rechard

Lessons learned from prior experience and social science research can influence public attitudes toward nuclear management facilities.

Public attitudes about the management of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level waste (HLW) are closely related to general attitudes about nuclear energy. Thus, understanding how perceptions and preferences about nuclear energy have evolved in recent years provides a necessary context for making sense of public beliefs, concerns, and preferences for managing SNF. This article describes some of the lessons learned about public acceptance of nuclear storage and disposal facilities in the United States over the past several decades.

Public Perceptions of Nuclear Energy

The level of public acceptance for nuclear facilities is linked to people’s intuitive balancing of the perceived risks and benefits associated with those facilities (e.g., Jenkins-Smith and Kunreuther, 2001; Slovic et al., 1991b). In the case of civilian nuclear energy, the U.S. public perceives the balance to be generally positive.

The National Security and Nuclear Policies (NSNP)1 project has been using surveys to track the overall balance of perceived risks and benefits of nuclear energy since 2006. Participants were first asked to consider a number of specific risks (e.g., releases of radiation due to accidents at plants or during the transport of nuclear fuel; terrorist attacks; diversion of materials from SNF for nuclear weapons) and benefits (e.g., reliable production of base energy; reductions in reliance on energy imports; reductions in greenhouse gas emissions) of nuclear energy. Representative samples of respondents were then asked to assess the overall balance of risks and benefits on a scale of one (risks greatly exceed benefits) to seven (benefits greatly exceed risks).

Mean values for 2006 through 2011 are shown in Figure 1 (sampling error for each year is <3 percent). As the data show, Americans consistently view nuclear energy as having greater benefits than risks.

Figure 1

The perceived risks of nuclear energy—like the risks associated with all energy sources—are necessarily relative. In the past few years, when the risks posed by nuclear energy were put into a comparative context, they were seen as equivalent to, or slightly lower than the risks from fossil fuels (Herron and Jenkins-Smith, 2010, p. 84). On average, members of the public would prefer a substantial increase in reliance on nuclear energy in the overall energy supply over the next 20 years. When respondents were informed about the current mix of U.S. energy supplies,2 most of them said they would like to see the fraction of U.S. energy from nuclear generation increase, from 8 percent to 22 percent (a 275 percent increase), over the next two decades (Figure 2).

Figure 2

When asked whether they favored construction of new reactors at existing plants or at new sites (on a scale of one [strongly oppose] to seven [strongly support]), the average level of support was higher for construction at existing plants. In fact, the level of support has declined only slightly since 2006, even after the events at Fukushima. From 2006 to 2011, the average level of support decreased approximately 7 percent for adding reactors at the sites of existing nuclear power plants and by 4 percent for building reactors at new sites (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Public acceptance of policy options for managing used nuclear fuel and HLW must be measured in this context. Public acceptance of management options for SNF will be conditioned by the current environment of increasing support for reliance on nuclear energy, as well as sustained support for constructing new nuclear energy reactors.3

Public Perceptions of Spent Nuclear Fuel

In contrast to nuclear energy, in the United States and elsewhere, both SNF and HLW were considered “wastes” with dreaded risks and few offsetting benefits.4 In this climate, attempts to provide inducements for communities or states to accept SNF can backfire if they are perceived as confirmation that the risks are dire (Jenkins-Smith and Kunreuther, 2005; Kunreuther and Easterling, 1998).

In addition to the perceived physical risks from such “wastes,” other research has suggested that “perception-based impacts” may stigmatize and impose social and economic losses on host communities and states (Easterling and Kunreuther, 1993; Gawande and Jenkins-Smith, 2001). Sustained public and state-level opposition to the siting of the Yucca Mountain repository (Slovic et al., 1991c), coupled with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) decision to withdraw the license application and terminate the project in 2010, illustrates the difficulty of finding willing host communities for facilities designed to manage and dispose of SNF and HLW.

However, recent successes in finding willing host communities for SNF disposal in Sweden and Finland have stimulated new thinking about the possibilities of siting SNF management facilities (Elam and Sundqvist, 2009). In the United States, the successful licensing and ongoing operations of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, have also generated some optimism that the presence of disposal facilities for nuclear materials might be acceptable to some communities. Studies of public attitudes toward SNF disposal (based on the NSNP program initiated in 1993), and experience with WIPP and the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, provide important lessons for future efforts to site nuclear materials facilities.5

Public Understanding of Spent Nuclear Fuel and Related Policies

Members of the public are capable of developing reasoned policy preferences about complex issues (Herron and Jenkins-Smith, 2006; Lupia and McCubbins, 1998), but public understanding of such issues tends to evolve from inchoate opinions toward stable judgment only as policy debates mature (Yankelovich, 1991). Evidence collected by the NSNP project indicates that public opinion on the SNF issue has not fully matured.

For example, consider the widespread misunderstanding of current SNF practices in the United States. Until very recently, a plurality (one-third) of survey respondents believed that SNF was already being shipped to Nevada for permanent disposal. Despite ongoing news reports about the long-running debate over the Yucca Mountain repository, many people neither sought nor monitored information on SNF management practices.6

Nevertheless, there has been a modest trend toward a more widespread public understanding that SNF is usually stored at or near civilian nuclear reactors. From 2006 to 2011, the fraction of respondents who knew that SNF is stored in special containers at nuclear power plants throughout the United States increased from 1 in 5 to 4 in 10 (40 percent in the 2011 iteration of the survey, substantially more than the 23 percent who still believe SNF is sent for deep geologic disposal in Nevada).

However, when asked if SNF was stored at any site in their own states, only 13 percent could answer correctly. Thus, although public understanding appears to be improving modestly over time, there is some distance to go before opinion evolves to support a clear and stable aggregate public judgment about SNF policy.

Given the current level of public understanding, it is all but impossible to measure preferences as a basis for analyzing the prospects for acceptance of SNF management facilities unless a basic level of background information is provided to survey respondents. However, once such information is provided, members of the public are able to express differentiated, stable opinions, even about complex issues of this kind, grounded in their broader belief systems (Herron and Jenkins-Smith, 2006). The NSNP project has used this approach to track public assessments of current policies and to evaluate variations in public acceptance of SNF management options for alternative design characteristics for policies and facilities.

Public Evaluation of Current Management Practices

Evaluation of current SNF storage practices requires that survey participants be apprised of the primary points of view of both proponents and opponents of continued on-site storage, in a way that does not privilege one argument over the other.7 With that in mind, the following background information on current SNF policy was provided to NSNP participants:

Currently, US spent nuclear fuel is being temporarily stored at over 100 sites in 39 states. Most of it is stored at nuclear power plants where it is placed in secure cooling pools. In some cases, the spent fuel is transferred to specialized concrete casks stored above ground near the nuclear power plant. At each site, the cooling pools and storage casks are protected at all times by security forces. Some people think this is an acceptable solution for the foreseeable future, while others think such practices are risky and other options need to be adopted.

The following arguments were then presented in randomized order:

Opponents argue that some nuclear power plants where spent nuclear fuel is stored are near rivers, oceans, and large population centers. On rare occasions spent fuel has leaked radiation into the cooling pools. Moreover the cooling pools and containers are located at ground level, and therefore might be vulnerable to terrorists. They note that these storage practices do not provide a permanent solution for managing spent nuclear fuel.

Supporters argue that transporting spent nuclear fuel by train or truck to consolidated storage facilities is risky, that storing spent nuclear fuel at nuclear power plants is less expensive than consolidated storage, and that it buys time for finding future solutions. Moreover, storage at nuclear power plants has not caused any accidents that have exposed the public to radiation.

Survey respondents were then asked how they felt about the current practice of storing SNF at or near nuclear power plants, based on a scale of one (strongly oppose) to seven (strongly support). Mean responses from 2006 to 2011 were consistently below mid-scale (3.4–3.7). In 2011, 46 percent of respondents opposed indefinite on-site storage, 30 percent were undecided, and 24 percent favored continuing the current practice. These responses indicate that, although the public is decidedly uneasy about indefinite on-site storage, there remains significant latitude for continued policy development.8

Policy Design Options

An analysis of results from the most recent 2011 NSNP survey, and of the policy debate concerning SNF in Europe, suggests that two related considerations underlie public acceptance of SNF management strategies: (1) whether SNF is designated a waste or a resource; and (2) whether society should be able to make changes to improve the safety of the materials in the storage/isposal facility. These considerations are directly related to “retrievability” in the design of SNF repositories.


Retrievability (i.e., the ability to remove SNF from a storage facility) has become a central issue in public debates about the acceptance of SNF disposal siting in Europe (see e.g., OECD-NEA, 2001, 2009). In debates in Finland about facility siting, integrating retrievability into the design of disposal facilities for SNF was one of the few concrete results of very extensive public engagement on the issue (Hokkanen and Kojo, 2003). Subsequently, Finland was the first state to successfully site a permanent repository near a host community, Eurajoki.

In the United States, the issue of retrievability of SNF has received little public consideration, although discussions by focus groups in the late 1990s suggested that future generations should have the option of removing SNF from disposal facilities if new knowledge or changed circumstances warranted such action.9

The NSNP project queried the implications of retrievability in repository design for public acceptance of SNF facility siting by presenting balanced arguments for and against.10 Respondents were then asked to indicate how they felt, on a scale of one (strongly oppose) to seven (strongly support), about the following options, presented in random order:

Construct sites so that stored materials are monitored and could be retrieved for reprocessing or further treatment in the future.

Construct sites so that stored materials are permanently sealed away and cannot readily be retrieved in the future.

Overall, 60 percent of respondents supported the retrievable design (with a mean response of 4.72), and 38 percent expressed support for the non-retrievable design (mean response 4.02). When asked to rank the two options, 69 percent preferred the retrievable option. In sum, although neither option generated strong opposition, the inclusion of retrievability in the repository design was preferred by a two-to-one margin.

Waste or Resource

Available evidence suggests that broad public support for retrievability is based on two distinct considerations. The first is whether SNF is understood by the public to be a waste or a potential resource that can be reprocessed in the future. Since we began measuring attitudes about reprocessing in 2008, responses have been consistent; a substantial majority has expressed support for the reprocessing option (ranging from 59 to 67 percent in favor). Fewer than 20 percent of respondents have expressed opposition in any one year (e.g., fewer than 16 percent of all respondents in 2011).

Note that these results were obtained despite reminders that uranium and plutonium, when separated by reprocessing, could be used to make nuclear weapons. The public thus broadly perceives SNF to be a potential resource.

Retaining Future Options

The second basis for support for a retrievable SNF repository design is potential future improvements in safety. In the European debate over SNF disposal, a distinction is made between retrievability (physical retrieval of SNF from a repository) and reversibility (the option of changing the disposal policy if better options become available) (OECD-NEA, 2001, p. 11).

In the American context, findings based on focus groups suggest substantial optimism that future developments in science and engineering will lead to options that current technologies do not now support. Therefore, they reason, permanent closure of a repository would preclude taking advantage of those options (Bassett et al., 1998).11

More conclusive evidence of a public preference for retaining the option to take advantage of future learning is available from the NSNP project, which in 2010 and 2011, asked whether support for siting a repository would change if the repository was combined or co-located with a research laboratory focused on finding ways to improve the safety and efficiency of managing SNF. When this option was included, support for the facility increased substantially, even among those who were initially opposed to siting the facility (see more detailed discussion below).

Given the public sensibilities about retrievability described above, how do specific repository design factors shape public support for SNF management facilities? Now that DOE has withdrawn its license application for the repository at Yucca Mountain, it is possible to consider a wide range of options. Primary policy design features that may have significant implications for public acceptance include: (1) the number of sites considered; (2) the type of storage and storage depth for SNF at these sites; and (3) whether the repository function will be combined with other activities at the facilities. In 2010 and 2011, NSNP investigated the implications of each of these features for public acceptance.

The Number of Storage Sites

Three options appear to be plausible: (1) continued, dispersed, on-site storage facilities, chiefly on sites of operating nuclear reactors; (2) a number of regional facilities, perhaps designed to optimize SNF transport; and (3) one or two centralized facilities. The 2010 and 2011 NSNP questionnaires measured relative public preferences for a characterization of each option.

Respondents were first asked to consider the preferred number of facilities,12 then to rate their preferences for each option on a scale of one (strongly oppose) to seven (support), and then to rank the options from most to least preferred.

After spent nuclear fuel is removed from the cooling pools, continue the current practice of temporarily storing it above ground at designated nuclear power plants. This option does not require additional transportation of radioactive materials by train or truck, and it presents few additional political or legal obstacles.

Construct six to eight regional storage sites that can be more easily secured and can provide longer-term storage. This option requires transporting spent nuclear fuel by train or truck over moderate distances and is likely to generate political and legal opposition.

Construct two large centralized storage sites (one in the west and one in the east) that can be most secure and provide permanent storage. This option requires transporting spent nuclear fuel by train or truck over longer distances and is likely to generate political and legal opposition.

The average levels of support in 2011 on the scale of one to seven for (1) continued on-site storage, (2) six to eight regional sites, or (3) two centralized repositories were 4.02, 4.14, and 3.85, respectively. Mean preferences for continued on-site storage and multiple regional repositories were statistically indistinguishable, and both were preferred to the option of two centralized repositories.

Several conclusions can be drawn from these results. Strong preferences for the number of repositories have yet to develop, suggesting that there is considerable latitude for working toward an acceptable option. For each option considered, the modal response was the scale mid-point (indicating uncertainty or lack of preference). Strongly held positions (either in support or opposition) were near or below 20 percent for all three options.

At the same time, support for a larger number of sites—whether regional or continued at reactors—was greater than support for two centralized sites. This suggests that the public would not rule out, at least in theory, multiple storage/disposal facilities.

Prospective difficulties with obtaining acceptance from people living near those sites, the so-called not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) reaction, are discussed below.

The Depth of a Storage Site 

Another critical design factor is the depth at which SNF is stored; this can plausibly range from ground level to miles below the surface. NSNP respondents in 2011 were asked to consider their preferences for two possible designs: surface storage and storage/disposal in a deep geologic mine repository. The two options were posed as follows, in random order:

One option is to store spent nuclear fuel at or near the surface in hardened structures of concrete and steel. This allows monitoring and retrieval, but it is considered to provide a safe means to manage the material for only about a hundred years.

One option is to build mine-like storage facilities that are thousands of feet underground. These can be constructed to allow materials to be retrieved, or they can be designed to permanently block access in the future. They are suitable for storage over thousands of years.

Respondents indicated their support for each option on a scale of one (strongly oppose) to seven (strongly support).  In 2011, support for a mine-like deep geologic storage scored highest (4.80); support for the ground-level option was 3.84. Among the NSNP respondents, the mine-like geologic option is the clear preference for depth.

However, because the characterizations of the options emphasized the implications of each choice for retrievability and suitability for long-duration of storage, respondents’ preference for the mine-like repository may reflect the characterization of that option as affording both retrievability and the ability to seal the materials for “thousands of years.” This is consistent with the more general preference for retrievability discussed above.

Combining a Storage/Disposal Site with Other Facilities

As we have seen, design features of a repository may have important implications for the acceptance of a facility by prospective host communities. The Yucca Mountain repository was designed exclusively as a disposal facility to be permanently sealed after a monitoring period. It was meant to have minimal long-term scientific research activity on the site and was not designed to include non-disposal functions for nuclear waste management (e.g., a research or reprocessing capacity).

This combination of features (or lack of features), influences the way observers understand the combination of risks and benefits of the facility. Given the large number of permutations of possible facility design features, in 2011 the NSNP focused on the effects of two variations in design: combining two centralized, mine-like repositories with either (1) a research laboratory or (2) an SNF reprocessing facility. Note that both alternatives stipulate that the repository would have secure surface storage and would be in compliance with regulatory safety requirements.

When more complete descriptions were provided, there was a moderate increase in support. The deep-geologic mine option received an average initial support of 4.65 on the one (strongly oppose) to seven (strongly support) scale. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents who were presented with this option expressed support, while 19 percent were opposed, and 24 percent were neutral.

Given these starting points, what happens to support for the facility if the repository function is combined with a laboratory and/or a reprocessing facility? To evaluate the effects of a combination of facilities, the following two questions were posed, in random order, in 2011:

What would happen to your level of support if you learned that each of the sites also would contain a national research laboratory for studying ways to more safely and efficiently manage and dispose of nuclear materials?

What would happen to your level of support if you learned that each of the sites also would include facilities for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel for reuse in generating electricity?

The effects of bundling (combining) a base repository with a hypothetical national research laboratory are shown in Table 1. Changes in support attributable to the addition of the laboratory are shown for those who initially supported, were neutral, or opposed the base facility.

Table 1

The most striking changes were noted for those who were initially opposed or neutral to siting the facility. Among those who were initially opposed, 42 percent said their support for the repository would increase if it were combined with a national research laboratory. Among those who were initially neutral, support increased to 60 percent.

These findings are consistent with findings of earlier studies showing that modifying facilities in a way that addresses the initial risks—both reducing them directly and providing benefits germane to those risks—is the most effective way to increase the level of acceptance of a facility (Jenkins-Smith and Kunreuther, 2005).

In this case, co-locating an SNF repository with a national research laboratory that would study “ways to more safely and efficiently manage and dispose of nuclear materials” would both reduce the relevant risks and provide high-prestige employment and other economic benefits. Based on the substantial increases in levels of support, such a facility may be less susceptible to the stigmatizing images that often characterize descriptions of stand-alone repositories.

Table 2

The effects of combining a repository with a reprocessing facility are shown in Table 2. Again, the changes in support are shown for those who initially opposed, were neutral, or supported each option. As with co-location of a repository with a national research laboratory, co-location of a repository with a reprocessing facility also increased support. Among those who either initially opposed the repository or were neutral, nearly half said the addition of the reprocessing capability would increase support for the repository. A smaller percentage said the combination would decrease support. Given the consistent and generally supportive attitudes of most Americans toward reprocessing (as discussed above), the increase in support for repositories co-located with reprocessing facilities is not surprising and could be helpful in informing policies.

The implications are that public acceptance of an SNF repository is sensitive to the overall design attributes of the facility. If it is exclusively for disposal, the perceived risks and associated negative images tend to dominate perceptions (especially when SNF has been designated a “waste”). If the facility is more heterogeneous, that is, it includes design elements that address offsetting risk/benefits (such as a laboratory or reprocessing facility), thus attaching resource value to SNF, prospects for public acceptance improve.

Lessons Learned

In this article, we have described a number of lessons learned from prior experience and social science research on public acceptance of nuclear materials management facilities. Overall, we have learned that public attitudes can inform the policy debate in important ways. In addition, we believe that careful, time-series investigations can continue to provide important guidance for policies and public acceptance of nuclear facility siting.


Sandia National Laboratories is a multi-program laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Company, for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration, under contract DE-AC04-94AL85000. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of DOE or Sandia.


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 1 The NSNP project surveys are sponsored by Sandia National Laboratories and the University of Oklahoma. The surveys are collected annually, in May and June. Internet surveys are collected once a year. Companion telephone surveys are collected periodically to take into account the effect of the “mode of collection” on the responses. For an overview, see Herron and Jenkins-Smith (2010); Jenkins-Smith and Herron (2009); and Jenkins-Smith et al. (2011).

2 The proportions shown are averages from the Sandia National Security Survey for 6 years (2006 to 2011). The yearly averages have fluctuated very little over time.

 3 The results of the NSNP project are consistent with the findings of other, less comprehensive, measures of attitudes toward nuclear energy (Jones, 2009). The NSNP data also show that support for nuclear energy is greater among males, people with higher incomes, and people with higher levels of education; this is also consistent with other findings.

4 See Slovic et al. (1991a) on nuclear waste. A powerful example of issue-framing in public debates has been widespread reference to spent (or used) nuclear fuel as “nuclear waste” and of repositories as “nuclear waste dumps.” Designation of a substance as a waste implies that it has no further use or purpose other than disposal, and hence poses only risks.

5 For the most recent published summary of the Sandia National Security Survey Project, see Herron et al. (2012).

6 For the pattern of news coverage since 2004, as well as the volume of internet search activity, for Yucca Mountain, use “Yucca Mountain” as the search term at Google Trends™, accessible at

7 The objective in survey design of this kind is to provide, in brief and accessible form, the range of arguments that the public is likely to encounter in public debate on the issue.

8 Another indicator of latitude for continued policy development is that in 2011 only 16 percent of the responses fell on the scale endpoints (“strongly oppose” or “strongly support”).

9 These focus groups were conducted in Nevada, New Mexico, and Illinois as part of a research project undertaken by the University of New Mexico’s Institute for Public Policy in 1998. The results were summarized in Bassett et al. (1998).

10 The wording was as follows: “Now we want you to consider the issue of whether stored radioactive materials should be managed in a way that allows authorized personnel to gain access to them and retrieve the materials in the future, or that seeks to permanently block access to them. One option is to build facilities where the stored materials are continuously monitored and can be retrieved for reprocessing, or possibly to make them less dangerous using future technological developments. This option requires increased security and may mean the facility is more vulnerable to attack or theft. Another option is to attempt to seal off storage sites in such a way that people cannot readily gain access to the materials in the future. This option is more secure, but does not allow reprocessing or treatment by future technological advancements.”

11 One example is deep borehole disposal, which has become more promising over the last decade with advances in deep drilling.

12 The wording was as follows: “While nuclear power plants will continue to store some spent fuel in their cooling pools, much of the radioactive materials currently at temporary storage sites in 39 states might be consolidated at a smaller number of regional or central facilities. Once it is consolidated, the spent nuclear fuel can more easily be secured and protected from attack. The fewer the number of regional or central storage facilities, the less complex are the political and legal obstacles for finding communities willing and able to host the facilities. At the same time, a larger number of regional storage facilities would reduce the distances radioactive materials must be transported by train or truck, and would also reduce the number of communities through which the transport routes would pass.”

About the Author:Hank C. Jenkins-Smith is professor of political science, University of Oklahoma. Carol L. Silva is associate professor of political science and director of the Center for Risk and Crisis Management, University of Oklahoma. Kerry G. Herron is a research scientist, and Sara R. Trousset is a doctoral student and research assistant at the Center for Risk and Crisis Management, University of Oklahoma. Rob P. Rechard is a risk analyst at Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, New Mexico.