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Homeless nuclear waste

Some 60,000 metric tons of radioactive waste is stored at nuclear power plants across the country, awaiting federal action that’s already a decade late.

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of the Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2009

Interim nuclear waste storage silos on the site of the dismantled Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset, Maine, hold 1,435 spent fuel assemblies.

Colin Woodard



Standing on the end of Bailey Point, looking out on a cold, blue inlet of the Atlantic, you’d never know a nuclear power plant once stood here.

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The massive concrete containment dome, the spent fuel storage pool, and the six-story-high turbine hall were all torn down earlier this decade, leaving a rain-soaked meadow of grass. The engineers and technicians who tended the 900-megawatt reactor packed up and left town a decade ago, when the Maine Yankee Atomic Power Station stopped producing power.

All that’s left is radioactive waste: the remains of the plant’s reactor vessel lining and the 1,435 spent fuel assemblies that passed through it over a quarter century of operations.

It has nowhere else to go. The owners of the defunct plant have put the waste in sealed canisters and placed them inside 64 two-story concrete silos that stand in regimented formation behind a 12-foot earthen berm and twin rows of razor-wire-topped fencing. Guards, insurance, maintenance, and other costs add up to $8 million a year, which is currently borne by utility customers. If it weren’t for the need to watch over the waste, the company would have been dissolved with the rest of the plant in 2005.

Wiscasset, a community of fewer than 4, 000 sometimes called the prettiest little village in Maine, is one of eight US towns that have found themselves stuck with high-level waste after the power plants that produced it disappeared. Other communities will join them in the coming decade as more plants reach the end of their life spans.

Maine Yankee’s owners worry that spent fuel and other wastes may sit where they are for decades, given the Obama administration’s decision to abandon work on a controversial federal repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

“We’re kind of in limbo now,” says Maine Yankee spokesman Eric Howes, standing next to a concrete barrier at the approach to the interim storage yard. “The law says the federal government was supposed to take this stuff away 11 years ago. There are places they could take it, so we want them to please enforce the law.”

Fifty years after the first civilian nuclear power plant came on line, the United States has yet to decide what to do with the spent fuel they produce, raising questions about proposals to build more plants to meet future energy needs and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. “If you don’t have a credible endpoint for spent fuel that deals with the long-term safety and security issues, you really have to wonder if nuclear power is a reasonable choice,” says physicist Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington.