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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.

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“The less you move the fuel around, the better,” he says, pointing out that it is probably most vulnerable to accident or attack when it’s moving overland on trucks or rail cars, sometimes through densely populated areas. “The standards for transportation are pretty lax, and the risks of moving fuel twice outweigh the benefits.”

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Asked about the prospects for a central interim storage facility, DOE spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller says the government is not currently “focused on specific sites” but rather on developing “thoughtful, long-term solutions to nuclear waste storage that do not involve Yucca Mountain.” Energy Secretary Steven Chu plans to delegate that task to a special blue ribbon commission whose membership has yet to be determined.

The Nuclear Energy Institute isn’t opposed to a centralized interim site, just as long as the federal government doesn’t run it, according to Steven Kraft, the industry group’s senior director for used fuel management.

“DOE could rent space in a private facility, but we do not think it would make sense for it to be a government facility,” he says, adding that government management would be more expensive and cumbersome. “Look at how well the government has done with Yucca Mountain,” he says with irony.

Mr. Kraft also says the uncertainty over spent-fuel disposal would have “no effect at all” on efforts to expand nuclear power generation. “Whether or not you build new nuclear plants in this country will be determined by traditional business factors,” he says. “We have to have a plan to deal with spent fuel, but we do not see it as an impediment.”

Back in Wiscasset, Don Hudson isn’t so sure.

“The constipation of the nuclear fuel cycle – our inability to develop a plan to deal with the waste – effectively puts a hold on any kind of significant redevelopment of nuclear power in this country,” says Mr. Hudson, who’s president of the Chewonki Foundation, an environmental education group that owns former Maine Yankee land adjacent to the interim storage site, and also serves on the facility’s community advisory committee.

“I’m very comfortable with the way the [Wiscasset] site is being managed right now,” he says, “but I don’t think it is a sustainable plan to have 60 or 70 of these installations spread across the country for any number of economic, ecological, and radiological reasons. I think it’s just crazy for us to be talking about developing an increased capacity to make waste when we don’t have a plan to deal with it.”

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