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The Radioactive Waste Disaster


It was always a terrible name – The Nuclear Waste Confidence Decision. No one, since the first cupful of forever deadly nuclear waste was generated at Chicago’s Fermi reactor on December 2, 1942, has ever had the slightest ounce of confidence about what to do with it. It was the ultimate kick-the-can-down-the-road decision. Make radioactive waste now. Worry about the disposal problem later.


Now it’s later and no permanent, safe location or technology has ever been found – and may never be found – to isolate even that first cupful of radioactive waste from the biosphere. Instead, we have a mountain of radioactive waste 70 years high.


Yet the Orwellian Nuclear Waste Confidence Decision (NWCD), a con game first established in 1984 and last updated in 2010, held that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – the agency responsible for licensing  reactors – had “confidence” that somehow, someday, somewhere, somebody would come up with some acceptable plan or other.


Even after the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste dump plan was abandoned, the NRC still maintained that a suitable repository would be found “when necessary.”


This, despite the fact that all of the high-level commercial radioactive waste generated by US reactors sits at the reactor sites, either in indoor pools while it waits at least five years to cool, or in what are known as outdoor “dry casks,” stored on site, effectively in parking lots.


On June 8, the US Court of Appeals in DC put an end to such bullish “confidence.” In vacating the NWCD, the Court ruled that the NRC has to re-evaluate the environmental impacts of the storage and disposal of nuclear waste, effectively forcing the agency to examine the environmental consequences of producing highly radioactive nuclear waste without a long-term disposal solution. The Court’s decision also questioned whether irradiated fuel can safely be stored onsite at nuclear plants for an additional 60 years after the expiration of a plant’s 60-year license.


The ruling opens several important doors. It allows the public to challenge the environmental integrity of storing radioactive waste at reactor sites. It puts a freeze on the final issuance of extended or new reactor licenses – for those still operating and for those not yet built. And it presents an opportunity to once again push for securing radioactive waste on site in a more protective and robust manner.


Reactor fuel pools are so tightly packed with fuel rods that extraordinary precautions must be taken to prevent an inadvertent chain reaction. US reactor fuel pools still contain at least 75% of all the irradiated fuel generated since 1957, the year of the first commercial reactor (the Fermi reactor produced weapons-grade material – but more than 10,000 tons of weapons waste also sits without a permanent, secure disposal solution.)


As fuel pools filled up, some of the country’s fuel rods were transferred to concrete and/or metal casks, stored outdoors. But the casks are of questionable quality. Some have experienced hydrogen explosions and fires. The NRC does not require the casks to be directly monitored for over-heating, radiological releases and other safety issues. During the August 2011 5.8 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter near the North Anna reactors in Virginia, 115-ton outdoor casks there shifted precariously and suffered damage.

Close to 200 environmental groups have urged for years that fuel pools at US reactors be emptied and the waste stored in casks that are hardened and bunkered behind security fortifications. The technology is known as Hardened On-Site Storage (HOSS), but the federal government has never required such modifications, even after 9/11 and now, Fukushima.

Instead, while the NRC seeks to fulfill the orders of the court, the US Department of Energy and its allies in Congress, are embarked on a different path to move radioactive waste from reactor sites. The concept – an old idea that has already been debunked and rejected multiple times – is “Centralized Interim Storage (CIS).” An effort to dump radioactive waste “temporarily” on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian reservation in Utah was defeated in 2006 by an alliance of Goshute tribe members, environmental advocates and political allies.

If CIS was implemented, it would mean transporting the country’s radioactive waste hundreds, even thousands of miles on roads, railway lines and waterways, past the homes and businesses of at least 50 million Americans and depositing it at a parking lot site “temporarily.” The most likely targets remain communities with the weakest economic, political, or social resistance – those of low income or Native American reservations. Severe accidents –  such as high-speed crashes, long-duration, high-temperature fires, or underwater submersions – or even intentional attacks, could unleash disastrous quantities of hazardous radioactivity as these shipments pass through major metro areas.

With no new, suitable repository location in sight, these “temporary” dumps could easily become permanent. In addition, stacking un-hardened radioactive waste casks outside like bowling pins represents an obvious security threat. Finally, if the sites are, in fact, temporary, transportation risks will be doubled, by moving the waste first to the CIS site and then, again, to the final dumpsite.

Every silver lining has a dark cloud encircling it. While the court’s decision to stay final reactor licenses is a hard-won victory, we must remain ever-vigilant to prevent environmentally racist and scientifically unsound radioactive waste storage options that could endanger millions while perpetuating the unsustainable habit of continued waste generation. Stop making it is the first and most essential step towards managing our ever-mounting radioactive waste disaster.

Kevin Kamps specializes in nuclear waste issues at Beyond Nuclear, in Takoma Park, MD. Tel: 240.462.3216.

Linda Gunter serves as Beyond Nuclear’s international specialist. Tel: 301.455.5655.

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