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.
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By law, the federal government was supposed to have built a permanent repository and begun taking custody of the spent fuel piling up at the nation’s 104 nuclear plants in 1998. Complications – both political and technical – delayed work at Yucca Mountain, where the government has spent more than $13 billion. The delays caused spent fuel to begin piling up, filling storage pools at power plants across the country and forcing some of them to build special facilities to warehouse the waste.Skip to next paragraph
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Today there are 60,000 metric tons of spent fuel awaiting permanent disposal, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry association, and the nation’s power plants produce 2,000 tons more each year. Even if work on Yucca Mountain had continued, it wouldn’t have solved the problem: By the early 2020s, when it would have been completed, the nation’s nuclear waste would have already exceeded the repository’s 70,000-ton capacity.
The owners of decommissioned plants want the federal government to build its own interim storage site and to take their spent fuel away first, allowing them to close their facilities, sell property, and dissolve their companies.
“Here in New England there are three high-level nuclear storage sites, each of which has to be protected by three separate companies with redundant facilities,” says Bob Capstick, the Boston-based spokesman for two decommissioned plants, Yankee Rowe in Rowe, Mass., and Connecticut Yankee in Haddam, Conn. “It makes a lot more sense for the feds to bring it to a central storage location.”
Either way, the federal taxpayer will probably be stuck with the bill because the government was under a legal obligation to begin taking possession of spent fuel in 1998. In 2006, a federal judge awarded the three New England plants $142 million in damages, but the Department of Energy (DOE) has appealed the way the damages were calculated.
“It’s bad enough to have spent fuel stored on the site of an operating plant, but at least then you already have a security force and the technical skills to deal with radiation risks,” says Jerry Stouck, the attorney who represented the New England plants. “If you have to keep the same expertise on the site and all you’re doing is baby-sitting the fuel, it’s just a waste of money.”
Others say a centralized interim storage site makes sense from a security point of view. “If you have a hundred and some odd sites in 30 or more states where a terrorist attack could take place, you would think it might be better to house it all in one, centralized, highly secure location,” notes Patrick Dostie, Maine’s state nuclear safety inspector.
Centralized interim storage has its critics, though. Dr. Lyman of UCS says the concept is a bad one, as it requires spent fuel to be transported twice before it reaches its final resting spot.