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The Radioactive Waste Crisis

by LINDA PENTZ GUNTER

Before the month of January is out, the US Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future will unveil the result of its two year-long investigation into what to do with the accumulated radioactive waste at the country’s nuclear power plants. By this year’s end, that waste will constitute a mountain 70 years high, with the first cupful generated on December 2, 1942 at the Fermi lab not far from Chicago when scientists first created a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

There remains no viable solution for either the management or certainly the “disposal” of nuclear waste. Yet, the one recommendation that will not be contained in the DOE report is to stop making any more of it.  While a child would never be allowed to continue piling up toys in his or her room indefinitely, failing to tidy up the mess, the nuclear industry continues to be permitted to manufacture some of the world’s most toxic detritus without a cleanup plan.

A sneak peak last July at the Commission’s draft report confirms that no new miracles are to be unveiled this month. Its preferred “solution” appears to be “centralized interim” storage, an allegedly temporary but potentially permanent parking lot dumpsite for highly radioactive waste that, based on past practices, will likely be targeted for an Indian reservation or a poor community of color. “Centralized interim” storage sites for the country’s irradiated reactor fuel rods could easily become permanent if no suitable geological repository site is found. It will mean transporting the waste from reactors predominantly located east of the Mississippi to a likely more remote, western location. And these wastes would then have to be moved again, transported past potentially 50 million homes, en route to a “permanent” dump site or for reprocessing.

Reprocessing, a chemical separation used extensively in France, creates enormous amounts of additional radioactive wastes that are discharged into the air and sea and a plutonium stockpile that could be diverted for nuclear weapons use. The Commission looks unlikely to recommend reprocessing for now but the DOE is still willing to squander tens to hundreds of millions of dollars a year of taxpayers’ money on research and development.

The repository debacle ended temporarily in 2011 with the wise cancelation of the scientifically flawed proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. But new moves are afoot to search for an alternative site with the granite states – such as Vermont, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Carolina – highly favored. The Blue Ribbon Commission may point to the granite repository currently under construction in Finland as the way forward. But as one Scandinavian official stated unforgettably in the haunting documentary, Into Eternity, that examines the implications for the future if the Finnish repository is ever completed – in reality, “nobody knows anything at all.”

Attempting to find a site that can store deadly radioactive waste for a million years – the amount of time that the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges the waste will remain hazardous – could indeed be beyond the scope of humanity for the foreseeable future. But advocates of dump sites, permanent or temporary, argue that something must be done with the waste already accumulated. Almost all reactor fuel pools are filled to capacity, necessitating “overflow parking” in outdoor casks on site: both are vulnerable to accidents, attacks, and natural disasters. If a cask wears down, no safe, sure plan yet exists to transfer the waste inside it to a new cask.

While failing to advocate a cessation of production until a radioactive waste disposal solution is found, the DOE has also consistently ignored the only reasonable interim option, one that is technically feasible and avoids the need to move the waste vast distances to unwelcome destinations. This is Hardened On-Site Storage or HOSS, endorsed by scientists and more than 200 environmental advocacy groups around the country.  HOSS calls for emptying the fuel pools and placing the irradiated rods in high quality outdoor casks fortified by thick bunkers and berms. Safeguards, security, and monitoring would be designed to protect against leaks, accidents and attacks.

HOSS would buy time, necessary while we wait to see if scientific advances will ever deliver a safe, secure and enduring radioactive waste solution. But until such a time, generating more waste, and rushing it into repositories that likely would not shield their deadly cargo for the sufficient time while the isotopes and their containers decay, is a reckless decision that leaves a deadly legacy for future generations.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear, a Takoma Park, Maryland-based safe energy advocacy organization.

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Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She also serves as director of media and development. 

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