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What should America do with its nuclear waste?

What Should America Do With Its Nuclear Waste?

Currently there are about 80 locations in 35 states where spent fuel is being stored, with no long-term plans for disposal., WP, By Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow  1 Apr 22
,  ”……………………………………….. (closure of SanOnofre nuclear power station)   Magda and other activists realized that all of the high-level radioactive waste that had accumulated at the plant over the course of its lifetime — 1,600 tons of spent fuel rods — would remain at the site for the foreseeable future. Although the federal government is legally responsible for disposing of commercial spent nuclear fuel in a permanent underground repository, there has been no plan for fulfilling that obligation since the Obama administration halted the project at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2010. There are currently about 80 locations in 35 states — mostly at operational and decommissioned nuclear plants — where spent fuel is being stored indefinitely.

Since the San Onofre plant shut down, Magda has been trying to get the spent fuel moved to a more suitable site and to ensure that, until then, it is stored as safely as possible. As of 2017, she has represented her local chapter of the Sierra Club on the Community Engagement Panel, an entity established by SCE that holds quarterly meetings with the public. In her garage, she showed me a gray filing cabinet with four vertically stacked drawers, her granddaughter’s teal bike propped up against the side. The drawers contain hundreds of manila files with hand-scrawled labels: ……….  In addition to earthquakes and tsunamis, Magda and other activists are worried about coastal erosion and sea level rise caused by climate change. “We can’t leave it here,” Magda says.

The question of what to do with the nation’s spent nuclear fuel has recently garnered renewed attention. This is thanks in part to U.S. Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.), who represents the district encompassing San Onofre and has taken up the cause as one of his signature issues. An environmental lawyer by training, he told me he ran for Congress partially to make progress on reviving the nation’s stalled efforts. In January 2019, he established a task force of local stakeholders to study the situation at San Onofre. He has also co-founded the bipartisan Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Caucus, with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), and introduced the Spent Fuel Prioritization Act, which would ensure that the material is moved first from the most sensitive locations, including San Onofre.

Among scientific experts and government officials, there is broad consensus that the optimal solution is to eventually bury nuclear waste in a deep geological repository. But that is a long-term goal, and in the near future, Levin and many others are pushing for “consolidated interim storage.” This would mean that the spent fuel scattered at sites across the country would be moved to one or more facilities, in appropriate settings, that would be devoted entirely to safely storing the fuel until a geological disposal facility is ready.

There is also agreement, of a limited sort, between many nuclear opponents and supporters on the importance of addressing the waste issue. But for many opponents, such as Magda, the waste is a reason to abandon this form of energy altogether. ……………..

Despite recent momentum to break the spent fuel impasse, the obstacles are considerable. “Frankly we have a real problem in the U.S., not just at San Onofre,” Levin told me. “San Onofre is just the symptom, with 9 million people within 50 miles and two earthquake faults and rising sea level. The actual problem is that we’ve got nowhere to move it to.”

………….  The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act was the first major law to address spent nuclear fuel, and assigned the federal government the task of constructing and operating such facilities. By that time, there were dozens of commercial nuclear plants that had been accumulating spent fuel and storing it on-site with no plans for disposal. According to the law, the Department of Energy was required to move promptly to site two geological repositories for permanent disposal.

In 1987, however, amendments to this law identified only a single location: Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The selection was based on the Energy Department’s assessment of the site’s geological features and was also thought to reflect political dynamics at the time. In the state, the legislation became known as the “Screw Nevada Bill.” Nevada’s powerful long-serving senator, Harry M. Reid, made it his mission to see that this repository would never come to pass. In 2010, the Obama administration announced that it would withdraw the license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the project. “We’re done with Yucca,” Carol Browner, President Barack Obama’s energy adviser, said. (The United States does have a deep geological repository for defense waste, in New Mexico, but not for commercial spent fuel.)

Meanwhile, Obama’s secretary of energy convened the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to devise a new strategy. The commission issued a report in January 2012. “The overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program has been one of broken promises and unmet commitments,” the report stated.

The report’s first recommendation, highlighting its importance, was a “consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities” for both permanent underground disposal and temporary aboveground storage. That is, instead of selecting sites based strictly on physical characteristics, the new approach would solicit volunteers, and engage communities, states, tribes and other stakeholders to obtain their approval before proceeding with plans…………

The spent fuel at San Onofre is stored in 123 canisters, in what’s called an independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI, pronounced “ISSfuhsee”). Contrary to the popular impression of nuclear waste as green goo, the fuel rods consist of solid pellets, each slightly larger than a pencil eraser. The fuel rods, bundled into fuel assemblies, were retrieved from the reactors over the course of decades. After cooling for at least five years in pools of water, they were transferred into stainless-steel canisters, with walls five-eighths of an inch thick. Workers then transferred the loaded canisters, each of which weighs 50 tons, to a concrete pad overlooking the ocean and lowered them into stainless-steel cavities beneath the pad’s surface………….

the ongoing demolition of the plant — major decommissioning work is expected to continue through 2028 — as well as the construction of a rail yard. It was a reminder that radioactive spent fuel is not the only kind of waste produced by nuclear plants: Millions of pounds of metal and steel, and tens of thousands of titanium tubes, will eventually be loaded onto rail cars and shipped away, some to be recycled, some to a landfill. One day, according to the plan, the spent fuel will be shipped away on this rail line as well, though no one knows to where……………………………….

The 1957 National Academy of Sciences report stated, “Unlike the disposal of any other type of waste, the hazard related to radioactive waste is so great that no element of doubt should be allowed to exist regarding safety.” Being in the same room with unshielded nuclear waste, fresh out of the reactor, could very quickly give you a fatal dose of radiation……………………………………

Magda points out that for real progress to occur, the law needs to change so that Yucca Mountain is not the only permissible site for a permanent repository. Levin has not yet introduced legislation to change that, but he told me he plans to. One arguable reason for optimism is that an improved waste management strategy, unlike so many other causes, has bipartisan support. “Nuclear waste doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Levin says………………………..


April 12, 2022 - Posted by | USA, wastes

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