Where Will the Nuclear Waste Go?

Image by Dan Meyers.

“Where will the state’s nuclear waste go?” was the headline of a story bannered last month across the front page of Connecticut’s largest newspaper, the Hartford Courant.

What, indeed, is to be done about the nuclear waste that has been produced at the two Millstone nuclear power plants which have been operating in Connecticut? (They are now the only nuclear power plants running in New England.)

And what is to be done about the nuclear waste at other nuclear power plants?

Decades ago, one scheme was to put it on rockets to be sent to the sun. But the very big problem, it was realized, is that one-in-100 rockets undergo major malfunctions on launch, mostly by blowing up.

As Forbes magazine has pointed out, because of the “possibility of launch failure” if “your payload is radioactive or hazardous and you have an explosion on launch…all of that waste will be uncontrollably distributed across Earth.”

So, scratch that idea.

Then there has been the plan to construct a “repository” for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It was designated the nation’s “permanent nuclear repository” in 1987 and $15 billion was spent preparing it.

The very big problem concerning Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste dump: it’s in “an active earthquake zone, with 33 faults on site.”

So, that idea was scratched.

Now, Finland has built a nuclear waste site for its four nuclear power plants. “Finland wants to bury nuclear waste for 100,000 years,” was the title of an CNBC’s piece about it and how it uses “a labyrinth of underground tunnels.”

The very big problem: nuclear waste needs to be isolated from life for way more than 100,000 years. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2004 ordered the EPA to rewrite its Yucca Mountain regulations to acknowledge a million years of hazard, notes Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste specialist for the organization Beyond Nuclear.

“And that’s actually a low-ball figure,” said Kamps in an interview.

Some nuclear waste stays radioactive for millions of years, Kamps points out: “Iodine-129 that is produced in reactors has a 15.7 million-year half-life.”

After a half-life, a radioactive material is half as radioactive as when it was produced. For determining a “hazardous lifetime,” a half-life is multiplied by 20.

Thus Iodine-129 remains radioactive for 314 million years.

“The design of the storage facility” for nuclear waste in Finland “has taken into account the potential impact of earthquakes and even future ice ages,” related CNBC. But not for anything close to millions of years.

So, what should be done about nuclear waste?

First, says Kamps, “we should stop making it.” He calls for the closure of every one of the 92 nuclear power plants now in the United States, the building of no more and a push for safe, clean, green energy sources led by solar and wind energy. Nuclear power plants in the U.S. have since 1957 generated nearly 100,000 tons of deadly nuclear waste, he says. Second, the “best option is hardened onsite storage.”

Currently, most nuclear waste, he says, is at reactor sites in pools of water which must be kept circulating. If there is a “loss of water” accident, the nuclear waste in the pools can go “up in flames.”

Kamps and Beyond Nuclear, with other environmental and safe-energy groups, is now challenging—along with the state governments of Texas and New Mexico—the present U.S. government plan involving “so-called interim” nuclear waste sites in Texas and New Mexico.

They would be amid largely Latino communities, and on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest aquifer in the U.S. It extends north to South Dakota, encompassing eight states, and is a main source of water for drinking and irrigation.

Also, the U.S. Department of Energy has, he says, “restarted its federal consolidated interim storage facility scheme, last attempted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A whole new crop of nuclear waste dump fights can be expected, especially ones targeting Native American reservations to agree to host the most deadly poison our society has ever generated.”

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Oyster Creek, among the oldest nuclear power plants

in the U.S.—it began operation in 1969—is in the midst of being demolished after its closure in 2018. There’s been a “a series of worrisome accidents” in the tearing down process reported The Washington Post last month. And then there is the decommissioned Oyster Creek plant’s nuclear waste.

Oyster Creek was manufactured by General Electric and was a Mark I nuclear power plant—the same model of those that blew up at the Fukushima nuclear plant site in Japan.

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet, and the Beyond Nuclear handbook, The U.S. Space Force and the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war in space. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.