Nuclear waste awareness tour begins

Diane D'Arrigo, Deb Katz, Bob Bady, Leona Morgan, and John Ward stand by a replica of a nuclear waste cask at the Brattleboro Common on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.

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BRATTLEBORO — Leona Morgan isn't in Vermont this week for leaf peeping, but for environmental justice.

The Navajo woman from Albuquerque, N.M., is an indigenous community organizer and she wants the people of Vermont and New England what getting rid of the nuclear waste from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant means to her community.

Morgan, along with a group of anti-nuclear activists are touring New England this week to draw attention to what they concede is an oft-forgotten or ignored problem — where does the nuclear waste go?

Pulling a giant wooden mock cask that was built to resemble a cask used to transport — not store — high level radioactive waste, the activists are hoping the large dumbbell-looking prop will prompt discussion of the unsolved issue.

"It's our job to wake them up," Deb Katz, the executive director of the Citizens Awareness Network, said of residents.

Morgan said the nuclear industry — whether it is the existing 14,000-acre Waste Control Specialties (WCS) facility in west Texas, or its proposed expansion or a proposed Holtec nuclear storage facility just over the border in New Mexico — was overwhelming the communities in that region.

She said putting nuclear waste in that area, which she said is geologically unstable from a huge amount of oil and gas drilling, is dangerous and racist. The area is already home to the U.S. Department of Energy's waste isolation pilot plant, which houses government-generated nuclear waste, including low-level plutonium. All those projects, Morgan said, are within 50 miles.

It is a largely Hispanic and Navajo area, she said, and the companies and politicians who are behind the nuclear project are "old, white men."

"We are specifically targeted," Morgan said.

The six-day tour has been organized by Citizens Awareness Network, a regional anti-nuclear organization based in Shelburne Falls, Mass. Katz and others made a brief stopover in Brattleboro on Wednesday with its large mock canister, as the group was making its way from the Vermont Law School to Greenfield, Mass., for a rally and concert.

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"It is vital that citizens understand the issues and what's at stake," said Katz. "Until the criteria of sound science and environmental justice are the drivers behind any disposition, high-level nuclear waste must remain onsite," she said.

All three members of Vermont's congressional delegation have supported consolidated interim storage facilities, Katz said. Their support, she said, is based on the desire to get the high-level radioactive waste out of Vermont.

But she said that inherently unfair and short-sighted.

The stalled construction of a national depository at Yucca Mountain outside Las Vegas is still stalled, despite statements by President Donald Trump that he supports it. The project had been suspended during the Obama administration.

"This is an old bad idea," said Diane D'Arrigo, the radioactive waste project director for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C.

Vermont Yankee emptied its spent fuel pool and completed the transfer of its thousands of spent fuel rods — the most dangerous of the radioactive waste — last year into a storage facility on the grounds of Vermont Yankee in Vernon. The fuel is now in large concrete and steel canisters called dry cask storage and will remain there until the federal Department of Energy builds a nuclear waste facility to store it for the thousands of years it remains dangerous. Yucca Mountain was once targeted as that facility.

But the anti-nuclear activists said a new push for interim waste storage facilities in west Texas and eastern New Mexico would be dangerous and that the nuclear fuel "should only be moved once."

Moving the waste comes with many complications and potential dangers, Katz said, not to mention that thousands of shipments would come from dozens of nuclear power plants that have either shut down or will be shutting down.

The "Environmental Justice and Nuclear Waste Tour" started in Burlington on Tuesday, and made appearances in Montpelier, South Royalton, Brattleboro and Greenfield, Mass., on Wednesday. On Thursday, there is a legislative briefing at the Massachusetts State House, and afterwards a series of meetings in Massachusetts communities near the now-closed Pilgrim nuclear station. Then on Sunday, it's back to western Massachusetts for an event and concert in Florence, Mass.

Contact Susan Smallheer at or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.