Plans for Mass Shipments of High-Level Radioactive Waste Quietly Disclosed

How far is your house or apartment from a major highway, or railroad line? Do you want to play Russian roulette with radioactive waste in transit for 40 years?

Last month US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff quietly reported preparing for tens of thousands of cross-country shipments of high-level radioactive waste from nuclear reactors to the desert Southwest. The oft-disparaged US infrastructure of decrepit of roads, faulty bridges, rickety rails, and rusty barges may not be ready for such an onrush of immensely heavy rad waste casks.

Diane D’Arrigo, of Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Maryland, and Leona Morgan, with Nuclear Issues Study Group in New Mexico, report for NIRS that the transports would carry “the hottest, most concentrated atomic waste from the nuclear fuel chain, misleadingly dubbed “spent nuclear fuel. This radioactive waste can cause death in minutes if unshielded, and remains radioactive for literally millions of years; it is one of the most deadly materials on Earth.”

In his Dec. 2, 2021 letter to NRC commissioners, Daniel Dorman, NRC’s Executive Director for Operations, wrote that: “To prepare for a potential large-scale commercial transportation campaign, staff … assessed the NRC’s readiness for oversight of a large-scale, multi-mode, multi-package, extended-duration campaign” of heavy radioactive waste shipments by trains, trucks, and barges. The NRC’s “assessment” was published December 17 with Dorman’s letter, which noted that storage of the waste is now done in cooling pools and/or heavy outdoor casks near the reactors that produce it — at 75 sites across the country.

Radioactive waste storage may be consolidated

Dorman’s letter — unearthed January 4 by Michael Keegan of the Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes — reminds us, “The NRC received two applications to construct and operate consolidated interim storage facilities for [high-level waste], using dry storage systems, at sites in Texas and New Mexico.” In September 2021, the NRC issued a license to Interim Storage Partners Inc., for the Texas site, and a license decision is pending on a Holtec Corp. proposal for New Mexico. Both projects are the subject of lawsuits that will slow the industry’s and government’s rush to dump.

Critics of the proposed licensing are demanding that the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board halt the Holtec licensing because it is illegal. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act “only allows the US Department of Energy (DOE) to take ownership of irradiated nuclear fuel at an operating permanent geologic repository,” NIRS notes. “Such a title- and liability-transfer to DOE at the ‘interim’ site proposed by Holtec, is not allowed.”

NIRS reports that “The Holtec [company’s] license application says the lethal waste at the site would be owned by either the DOE or the nuclear utility companies that made it.” Yet at one licensing hearing, Holtec’s lawyer, Jay Silberg, admitted that under current law, DOE cannot take title and ownership of the waste at an “interim” centralized storage site.

Presently, “dry casks” that hold the waste onsite near reactors are not the same canisters required for long-haul transport. Dangerous repackaging, testing, and mishaps will be required. Government environmental impact statements regarding the thousands of these shipments over a decades-long timeline have officially predicted an alarming number of accidents, crashes, and potential disasters.

Maps of likely transport routes produced by the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects are available at Beyond Nuclear. They show cities, states, and congressional districts “potentially affected by shipments,” and are based on DOE plans in 2008 for the discredited Yucca Mountain dump site near Las Vegas. Yucca Mountain was scientifically disqualified and cancelled during the Obama Administration, but Nevada’s maps shed light on routes to the New Mexico and Texas sites, because the further away from the Southwest such waste shipments originate, the more similar-to-identical the transport routes would be.

The Tex-Mex dump site owners (Interim Storage Partners, and Holtec) in league with the NRC, have kept their shipment plans obscure and secretive. The waste’s producers and managers don’t want the public to know if or when “Mobile Chernobyls” could pass through their communities, or to start organizing to stop them. They know there are reasons to protest. The government has notoriously proposed water-borne routes that would see high-level waste casks on barges — a scheme critics call “Floating Fukushimas” or “Edmund Fitzgerald Follies.” The gales of November be damned. ###

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.