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Nuclear Plant Standoffs Accelerate Creation of Radioactive Graveyards

Doing nothing about aging US nuclear facilities and their onsite accumulation of spent fuel promises nuclear disaster. There is an alternative.

On March 23, 2010, President Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), Steven Chu, wrote in the The Wall Street Journal , “America is on the cusp of reviving its nuclear power industry.” He couldn’t be more mistaken.

The recent ruling preventing the licensing of new reactors and the relicensing of old nuclear reactors has caused politically driven nuclear lobbyists to call for the reopening of Yucca Mountain for storage of spent fuel. Refocusing on disposal of spent fuel ignores more dangerous problems the utilities have been hiding. The new ruling accelerates both the nationwide accumulation of deadly graveyards of abandoned radioactive reactors and the continued operation of nuclear reactors needing repairs.

Since the passage of The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, this country has not been able to implement a program for the safe disposal and isolation of high-level radioactive waste. From the very beginning, the Act’s provision that state governments were authorized to veto a national government decision to place a waste repository within their borders, and the veto would stand unless both houses of Congress voted to override it made construction of a repository a political football as well as a scientific and engineering challenge.

On August 7, 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) put a hold on at least 19 final reactor-licensing decisions in response to the waste confidence ruling of June 8th by the US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit. The court threw out the NRC rule that permitted licensing and relicensing of nuclear reactors based on the supposition that (a) the NRC will find a way to dispose of spent reactor fuel to be generated by reactors at some time in the future when it becomes “necessary” and (b) until then, spent fuel can be stored safely at reactor sites.

The court noted that, after decades of failure to site a repository, including 20 years of working on the now-abandoned Yucca Mountain repository, the NRC “has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository.” Therefore it is possible that spent fuel will be stored at reactor sites “on a permanent basis.” Under these circumstances, the NRC must examine the environmental consequences of failing to establish a repository when one is needed.

The ruling will likely be contested. It is not the responsibility of the NRC to dispose of spent nuclear reactor fuel or to prepare Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). It is the responsibility of the DOE. The law requires that the NRC evaluate the EIS prepared by the license applicant, the DOE. Elaboration of the environmental consequences of failing to establish a repository is EPA’s responsibility. Blame for the consequences of failing to establish a repository can be shared by the DOE, the Congress, and the “not in my back yard” activists who believe it is safer to have unprotected nuclear fuel placed all over the country than buried thousands of feet underground in a licensed engineered facility.

From the time of the unexplained 1987 Yucca Mountain choice by Congress to its 2010 closing by Obama, the program has been plagued by corruption, incompetence and total inability to exhibit progress. Yearly critical reviews by the US General Accounting Office (GAO) had been ignored.

In 2004, GAO claimed DOE was engaged in extensive efforts to restore confidence in scientific documents as a result of the suggestions of quality assurance problems discovered in emails between project employees, and it has about 14 million more project emails to review.

In 2005, GAO “discovered that scientific research conducted during the 1990s for Yucca Mountain was falsified by government geologists. The controversy involved emails from three members of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) showing data was(sic) fabricated related to water infiltration into Yucca Mountain tunnels. The revelation led to investigations by the FBI and the Inspector General for DOE and the Department of the Interior.”

In view of the extensive and detailed history behind the Yucca Mountain closing, the naïveté of the recent arguments made by a group of Congressmen representing the nuclear industry’s effort to reverse the decision is a testimony to arrogance and ignorance.

“Located in the middle of the desert a hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas, Yucca Mountain seems like the ideal spot for a nuclear waste repository. There’s no one around. The mountain sits at the intersection of three pieces of federal property: a rarely-used Bureau of Land Management parcel; an Air Force gunnery range; and an old Energy Department testing ground for atomic weapons. Supporters say it’s dry enough so water won’t erode the casks that hold the waste or carry radiation outside the mountain. They say it’s also not prone to earthquakes, and the old volcanoes nearby aren’t a threat.

“I challenge anyone to find a better site,” said Steven Kraft, director of special projects at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s policy arm. “No site is perfect, but almost all the things that make for a good repository Yucca has.”

I contend that as long as repositories are required to comply with NRC-EPA safety criteria, and Congress, rather than science, dictates the location, this country will never dispose of spent water reactor fuel.

There are, and always have been, alternatives to Yucca Mountain. The 1982 Act stated that the three locations considered to be leading contenders for a permanent repository were sites of basalt formations at the government’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, volcanic tuff formations at its Nevada nuclear test site and a salt formation in Deaf Smith County, Texas.

Prior to Congress’ political decision to choose the former atomic test site, Yucca Mountain, the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards (NMSS), the repository licensing branch of the NRC, had as its chief advisors a group of scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory whose responsibility was to determine if the three DOE waste package programs were producing the information needed to obtain a repository license in each of the three respective environments mandated by the 1982 Act.

Regular reports were made available to the DOE and to the public. A position paper containing examples of waste package designs capable of meeting the NRC license criteria was prepared at the request of the five commissioners. Technical versions of the designs were patented and submitted for review in the open scientific literature.

Basalt was not recommended because Congress chose the specific government-owned Hanford Reservation site, a former weapons facility, which already suffers from radioactive leakage into the Columbia River.

Yucca Mountain, also government-owned, was deemed incapable of receiving a license because it is seismically unstable and because tuff is cracked, porous and exposes the waste packages to oxygen and water infiltration so that compliance with the NRC-EPA radioactive containment criteria was not demonstrable.

Rigorous evidence, accepted by the NRC in a licensing hearing that appeared to be for cosmetic purposes only, was published showing that virtually all deep salt deposits can be used to develop safe and licensable repositories, and the claim has never been challenged.

But Congress refused to allow selection of the acceptable Deaf Smith County salt site in Texas it had originally mandated (or any of the many other potential salt sites named in the 1982 law), for reasons it did not disclose in the ruling. We are living with the nasty consequences of that decision.

According to the Congressional Service Report, there were 62,683 metric tons of commercial spent fuel accumulated in the United States as of the end of 2009. The total increases by 2,000 to 2,400 tons annually. Dry cask storage is the outside storage of spent fuel rods from nuclear plants. About 35 of the 104 nuclear plants in the US use this now. It gets worse daily. In order to continue operating, the plants need to supplement their indoor storage room (in pools of heavy water) with above-ground dry storage facilities. Outside, nuclear fuel assemblies are stored in tall steel casks. Experiments designed to show that the 4-foot-thick containment building can resist impact from a fully loaded passenger airliner do not apply to the greater amount of radioactive material that is sitting outside the containment cooling in the pools or in the steel casks. The absence of a spent fuel disposal solution is evident from the concluding statement in an article by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The NRC should upgrade existing regulations to require that dry cask storage sites be made more secure against a terrorist attack.”

The Abandoned Nuclear Reactor Nightmare

There is more to this nuclear nightmare. The United States cannot avoid becoming the world’s largest graveyard of abandoned radioactive nuclear reactors.

The NRC is unsuccessfully grappling with how to oversee the decommissioning of reactors that have reached the end of their usefulness. The cost of decommissioning a reactor can fall anywhere between $400 million and $5 billion, depending on the number of units, their ages and their accident histories. Utilities that cannot or will not pay these fees are planning to allow nuclear reactors to simply sit idle, potentially forever. There is no way to stop this. Aside from oversight recommendations which are often ignored, NRC has no enforcement capability. Utilities can voluntarily shut down and abandon any reactor they own for 60 to 90 years before they are obliged to submit a paper to the NRC on how they propose to “decommission” the reactor. They then get about another 15 to 20 years to do it. There are legal means to delay submission of the utilities’ decommissioning proposals indefinitely, even if spent fuel were somehow removed.

Nuclear reactors are owned and operated by private utilities. The states are responsible for regulating utilities on questions of reliability. They cannot determine nuclear safety. However, they, not the federal government (DOE), determine the amount of spent fuel that can be stored. The states can force the shutdown of reactors if the state limit on spent fuel storage is exceeded. Because of dependence on nuclear-produced electricity, no state has enforced this regulation, although many reactors have exceeded their limits. US reactors collectively hold in their onsite over-crowded, spent-fuel pools one of the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the world.

Utilities can operate nuclear reactors without the expensive repairs that relicensing requires if the states allow them to or if they file suit against state closure. In the rare case that a state attempts to shut down a reactor, the utility can oppose the shutdown by court appeal.Vermont Yankee, with a design life of 40 years, started its 41st year of operation March 22, 2012, despite an act of the Vermont legislature requiring it to shut down. A federal court decision in January 2012 that threatens to strip Vermont officials of any authority over Vermont Yankee is being appealed. Vermont Yankee has been leaking radioactive tritium for the past two years as a result of badly corroded pipes and plugged drains. NRC renewed its license in 2011 despite the tritium leakage.

“The owners of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant have told federal regulators they will not shut down the plant in the next five years, even though their request for a state permit remains unresolved after state efforts to shut down the reactor failed,” reads a news story in The Boston Globe dated April 12 of this year. “The word came in a letter from New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission dated March 30 and made public this week, as the 40-year-old plant closed out a third week of operating in legal limbo”

In October, Southern California Edison, the operator of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, proposed restarting one of the facility’s two damaged reactors without repairing or replacing the parts at the root of January’s shutdown.

In New York, officials are sparring with the Entergy Corp. over the aging Indian Point plant, with the company warning that closing the plant could increase the frequency of power failures. Another avenue the state is pursuing to shut down Indian Point is the denial of a state water-use permit. The state contends that the plant’s cooling water technology kills too many fish when it draws water from the Hudson River and that Entergy should build cooling towers. But a court could reverse that decision if it finds that the state’s real motivation is nuclear safety, which is a federal responsibility.

The utilities recognize that states that rely heavily on electricity produced by nuclear power cannot tolerate the threat of blackouts produced by shuttering those reactors that require repairs. The utility that caused the blackout is the only source of fixing it. States that allow the utilities to determine when and if nuclear reactor repairs should be made are setting up for eventual environmental disasters. (Three Mile Island and Fukushima post-accident investigations show that prior to both accidents, the reactors were operating under conditions that violated oversight recommendations.)

The blackmail has already occurred successfully by Exelon in New Jersey.

On Dec 8, 2010, electricity utility Exelon announced it will close Oyster Creek, the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant in 2019 – 10 years earlier than planned – but will not build the required costly cooling towers for it. Exelon Corp. president Chris Crane said low market prices and demand and the plant’s need for continuing large capital expenditures have reduced its value.

Exelon had balked at the state’s insistence on cooling towers, saying they are prohibitively costly and said it would shutter the plant rather than build them. The company said the $800 million it would cost to build the towers is more than the plant is worth, and it asked the state to withdraw its demand.

Eight days later, on December 16, 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie broke one of his major environmental campaign pledges by dropping a requirement that the 41-year-old Oyster Creek nuclear reactor install cooling towers to reduce thermal pollution of Barnegat Bay. As a result, the plant will continue to kill millions of fish, shellfish and marine life for the rest of the decade, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

An Exelon lobbyist once referred to the company as “the president’s utility.” One of Obama’s top fundraisers sits on Exelon’s board. Obama’s top political adviser, David Axelrod, worked as an Exelon consultant. Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel helped create the company through a merger when he was an investment banker. Obama has rewarded Exelon with a $200 million stimulus grant from the Energy Department, a $646 million loan from the Treasury Department and favorable regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet in the 2007 campaign, Barack Obama charged that the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission had become “captive of the industries that it regulates.”

The message from the utilities is clear: Relicense the defective old reactors or live with the abandoned corpses. An abandoned radioactive nuclear reactor site is much more difficult to protect against sabotage and a terrorist attack than is a spent fuel dry cask storage site. When the two are located together, the situation gets worse. With respect to natural disasters, if a comparison of evils is to be made, we know that the Tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima reactor and spread radioactivity worldwide did little damage to the spent fuel storage casks that were stored there. On the other hand, an airliner crashing into the containment building does less damage to the reactor than one crashing into any of the spent fuel storage areas.

There is a Reasonable Alternative to Stalemate

The US is at the dangerous end of a long-term nuclear stalemate due to conflicting and unenforceable regulations. The utilities are suing the DOE for expenses incurred from failing to remove spent fuel. The combined total of pending lawsuits may exceed $80 billion dollars that the DOE owes utilities. The DOE cannot remove the spent fuel because there is no licensed repository. There is no licensed repository because the states that have acceptable salt sites will not allow repositories. The states that have outdated nuclear reactors with overcrowded spent fuel pools and that need repairs will not shut down the reactors because they need the electricity, and they cannot protect abandoned radioactive reactors. (The utility-contested state shutdown of Vermont Yankee may eventually be an exception.) The utilities that own reactors that need repairs fight to operate them if they can make a profit and avoid repairs. Faulty reactors that are allowed to operate are guaranteed to eventually cause accidents.

One way or another, the stalemate of abandonment vs. the increased potential for accidents from the operation of reactors needing repairs, (RNRs) leads to radioactive graveyards that cannot be protected from accidents or sabotage.

The overall solution to the very rapidly growing problem of spent fuel disposal, abandoned reactors and operation of RNRs is a licensed salt repository. Removal of spent fuel allows decommissioning and decontamination. Decontamination allows dismantling of shut-down reactors. The relatively low level of radioactivity of dismantled reactor parts compared with spent fuel, allows them to be disposed of in the licensed salt repository. The products of decontamination can be disposed of in the repository and/or in existing low-level burial sites. All the needed documentation already exists. It is a political problem not a scientific or engineering one.

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