The Record Journal of Meriden (Conn.), June 3, 2014
The best-laid schemes of this country's nuclear regulators -- the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy -- seem to have gone awry. Even though they've been trying for decades to establish a secure national dumping place for depleted nuclear fuel, it still hasn't happened. Nevada's Yucca Mountain was supposed to be the site, but that plan fell through. New Mexico, Texas and Mississippi are on the table, but that will require action by Congress, and Congress seems to be in no hurry to deal with this problem.
Because NRC and DOE have also been thwarted by NIMBY -- "We do not want to become a nuclear waste site as a community," said Dan Steward, first selectman of Waterford, home of Connecticut's only commercial nuclear plant -- and the Obama Administration doesn't expect us to have a geologically safe repository in use until 2048, if then.
Meanwhile, the stuff continues to pile up at the 62 commercial nuclear sites in the U.S., where much of it is stored above ground in steel canisters. One of those sites is the Millstone Power Station, overlooking Long Island Sound, where those canisters are filling up what used to be a parking lot. There are 19 canisters loaded with spent fuel now, but the site was expanded in October to make room for as many as 135.
These things have to be monitored year-round, with workers checking their temperature gauges and clearing snow from their vents. Low-level waste is shipped from Millstone to South Carolina.
(The state maintains and updates a stockpile of potassium iodide pills for residents near Millstone. While it is prudent to keep those supplies on hand, it is also chilling to think that they might ever be needed, because the purpose of potassium iodide is to protect against thyroid cancer caused by radiation in a nuclear disaster. Barring an act of terrorism, though, stored fuel does not present such a danger.)
Lacking a national repository, plants including Millstone are preparing to keep the high-level nuclear waste in their backyards indefinitely. But that raises certain questions. How long can those canisters be expected to last? The NRC is doing testing, and has started issuing 40-year leases to replace those with 20-year terms.
But this depleted fuel will take hundreds of thousands of years to lose all of its radioactive potency; for all practical purposes, we will need to contain it until the end of time. How? And what about terrorism? How will we keep this stuff secure?
These are truths that we, as a nation, weren't willing to honestly face, back when the nuclear power industry was being born. Now we're stuck with the consequences. Since no one has yet argued convincingly that we should get rid of nuclear power, that means we'll just have to be vigilant for the next few thousand generations.