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.

Colin Woodard
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
Boom! Explosives implode the dome that housed the nuclear reactor of the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in 2004. It operated from 1972 to 1996.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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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