Department of Energy

Region briefed on nuclear waste removal

Federal government focused on ‘consent-based siting’
Posted:  Tuesday, June 7, 2016 - 9:00am

A public meeting was held by town officials and the U.S. Department of Energy to inform citizens of Lincoln County about the current plans to decide on both interim and final locations for the high-level nuclear waste, currently being housed in dry casks on the former Maine Yankee land. The meeting took place at the Wiscasset Community Center on Friday, June 3.

Andrew Griffith and Melissa Bates of the Department of Energy gave a brief outline of the current state of affairs, based on a meeting held on June 2 in Boston. In the past, Griffith said, the government had favored a top-down approach, using the best science and available information to make a decision about where nuclear waste would be stored. However, this led to many false starts, including the most recent Yucca Mountain plan, which was strenuously resisted by the state of Nevada and local residents. Some time after the decision had been made in favor of Yucca Mountain in the face of opposition, it was learned that a significant earthquake fault affected the region, and that the regional volcanic rock was more permeable than had been known at the time. Time eventually ran out, along with funding, on Yucca Mountain, and now the DOE is looking for geologic solutions in states and communities that would welcome the waste for financial considerations.

Seventy-five thousand metric tons of high level nuclear waste is in the inventory of power plants, hospitals, and nuclear stockpiles dating from the Cold War, according to Griffith. But now, rather than forcing storage on unwilling communities, the DOE is looking for host communities to store the waste if conditions are right.

“We’re holding meetings like this to inform people of what we’re doing, and to listen,” Bates said. “The waste needs a permanent place away from the biosphere, for many hundreds of thousands of years.”

Some communities are interested in housing the waste, including a location in New Mexico that is currently a repository for military grade nuclear material. But the issues surrounding nuclear waste are complex, and even if advanced reactors are able to reduce some of the waste in the future, there will still be a need for a geologic repository for much of it. That means a location with either a salt dome or firm granite topography, and as technology and understanding advances, these places might become interim storage locations.

“There was a clear vote of non-support for nuclear energy [at the meeting in Boston],” Griffith said. “Not only are there plants already shut down throughout New England, there are also planned shutdowns, and there are complaints from utilities and communities that we haven’t picked up the waste we promised to collect in 1998.”

That promise was not kept largely because of the massive objections to Yucca Mountain and the somewhat dogged insistence by the federal government that that site would become the repository. But other issues also arose, including the lack of safe and reliable transport, and the need to have safety plans in place all along the way, across several railroads, with multiple rights of way.

“There is also the issue of environmental justice,” said Bates, pointing out that disadvantaged communities, including tribal areas, might be tempted to accept the waste for immediate gain. Not taking advantage of these communities’ economic needs is another issue the DOE is considering when looking at potential sites.

While the utilities can sue the federal government for promises not kept, municipalities have no such rights. “We need to spend a lot of time with host communities to determine if this is what the communities and the surrounding communities want.”

The capability of communities and states to provide emergency services, even if paid for by the DOE, is another consideration. The best locations are regions that are not prone to flooding with the proper topography, not located in tectonic zones. But those regions are not highly populated, and it may take hours or even days for emergency personnel to respond to a breach, or a wildfire, or a flash flood, or an unexpected earthquake.

In a post 9/11 world, terrorism and intentional misuse looms large as an issue, the DOE representatives said in summarizing the Boston meeting. How will the waste be protected from deliberate terrorism? Should it be sited on a military installation or close to one?

Another issue is inter-generational fairness. A community may accept a waste facility, but the waste will be dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands or millions of years.

The radioactivity of nuclear waste diminishes with time. All radioactive nuclides have what is called a half-life — the time it takes for half the atoms to decay into another nuclide — and eventually all the waste decays into non-radioactive elements. But this process is very slow. While much of what was stored at Maine Yankee, aside from the fuel rods themselves, has a relatively short half-life (Cobalt-60 has a half-life of only 5.27 years and much of it is probably already safe), the spent uranium fuel rods themselves are highly radioactive, and there are 1,434 of them stored at Maine Yankee. Uranium-236, the form left behind after processing, has a half-life of 23,480,000 years, and even then, half the radiation is still present. They will be deadly for at least 10,000 years, and likely far longer.

Asking any community to commit its descendants to such a hazard is not an issue that can be taken lightly, the DOE representatives said.

Nor can the 1,434 fuel rods be left in their current location indefinitely. “Our casks are on a peninsula, and sea levels are rising,” one speaker pointed out. “I see no sense of urgency.”

It will take decades, the DOE acknowledged, before any potential site is identified. “We intend to spend $25 million per site, just to have that discussion,” said Griffith.