The final disposal of nuclear waste is at the interface between the technologies of the nuclear fuel cycle that produce the waste and the natural hydrologic and geochemical cycles of geologic repositories. Despite this broad interdisciplinary scope, nuclear waste management, as practiced, remains “balkanized” among the relevant disciplines. The individual subdisciplines continue to work in relative isolation from one another: materials science dealing with the immobilization of nuclear waste; engineering science dealing with the design, construction and operation of the repository; geoscience dealing with the long-term behavior of host rocks and the hydrology; health science dealing with the effects of radiation; social sciences dealing with the issues of trust, risk and ethics. Understanding how these very different disciplines interact is fundamental to creating and managing a nuclear waste organization. Based on a comprehensive review of the scholarly and scientific literature of waste management, we have analyzed the evolution and structure of research in nuclear waste management between 1979 and 2017. Focusing on materials science, we show that some research themes have been isolated from the most central themes of nuclear waste management. Moreover, we observed a relative decline of the fundamental research in materials science. This decline was evidenced by a drop in the number of articles published in the proceedings of the MRS symposia “Scientific Basis for Nuclear Waste Management” since 2000. We argue for the need to more precisely and inclusively define the field of nuclear waste management.