March 11, 2007
By Marlene Lang
The Secretary of Energy last week asked Congress, in a most urgent tone, to hurry and pass the “Nuclear Fuel Management and Disposal Act.”
This was a rerun of a proposal made almost one year ago to set aside 147,000 acres at Yucca Mountain, Nev. and start building an underground dump for unsavory radioactive waste. The proposal expands the request the secretary made one year ago, though. Energy secretary Samuel Bodman explained last week that there is so much radioactive waste sitting around the country -- safely contained in “Monitored Retrievable Storage” -- that if the dump were built next week, it would be at capacity.
“Please let us build our radioactive waste dump now! The lawsuits are killing us.”
That’s a paraphrase.
Actually, the lawsuits were mentioned only after the energy secretary made an attempt at giving more popular reasons for passing his law. His entreaty was based on a few “key facts.”
“Expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. is a critical priority for ‘energy security’ and ‘national security,’” his letter states.
“Energy security?” Is it a priority? And, further, does a thing being a priority make that thing a fact? Maybe, since goals are facts, too, in the Department of Energy.
“In order to insure (the expansion of nuclear power), the Nation must have a repository for disposal of spent nuclear fuel (that’s the industry’s term) and high-level radioactive waste.”
It is a fact that nuclear power produces radioactive waste that takes centuries to degenerate to a state that will not cause abnormal structural changes to the atoms of, well, YOU. The DOE Web site assures us that, “These (radioactive) atoms will eventually quit being radioactive as they release their energy over time.” Yes, over time. How comforting. Bring me some hot chocolate while I ponder how much time. I guess 10,000 years or so qualifies as “over time.”
It is a fact, though, as noted by the esteemed secretary, that IF we keep churning out that heavy-metal-driven power, we will have “spent fuel,” or radioactive waste that needs a final resting place. It is not a “fact” that we must ensure that nuclear power expands. This is purely a corporate growth vision.
Yucca Mountain is less than 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The industry anticipated starting the project in 1998, but, darn, many in Nevada didn’t want the nation’s radioactive dump in their back yard, and many didn’t want any nuke waste dumps any place, so it’s been a rocky road for Exelon and other giants in the “clean and reliable” nuclear power biz, with generating plants scattered across 39 states. The waste is presently stored at about 100 varied sites, often at the site of the power plant in stainless steel pools, then in “containers” made of lead and concrete and other stuff that keeps us all safe. If the bill is approved, all that precious spent fuel will be moved to Nevada; some 55,000 metric tons awaits the journey to Yucca Mountain. If given the go-ahead, work will start soon and the dump will be ready to “receive spent fuel” 10 years from now. It’ll take a while to dig that 35- or 40-mile tunnel and line it with material that is supposed to keep the bad stuff in for millennia to come. In a cross-section drawing at the DOE Web site, it looks like a giant suppository. Poor mountain.
Meanwhile, as the decade marches on and the underground repository is -- or is not -- constructed, at least 20,000 metric tons more of radioactive waste will have piled up in those on- and off-site containers.
Plans originally set a 70,000-ton capacity for permanent waste storage at Yucca Mountain. If the Act passes, by the time the dump is taking trash, they’ll be at least 75,000 tons awaiting.
The radioactive waste will be transported by train and truck from places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Illinois to Nevada, in containers that look like bar bells, atop truck beds and flat cars. The Department of Energy tells us plainly, “The number of these shipments by road and rail is expected to increase.” This understatement is brought to you by the source that calls 10,000 years: “over time.” When does the circus begin?
Soon, the Department of Energy and the nuclear power industry hope.
Meanwhile, there’s the lawsuit “oh, sh--” factor. Bodman asks Congress to expedite the matter, not because of the mounting pile of radioactive waste sitting around in temporary containers, but because of the “mounting Federal Government liability associated with delays in opening the repository.”
Seems legislation passed in 1982 placed responsibility for disposal of spent fuel from nuclear power plants squarely on the shoulders of the federal government. Contracts were to be made with the facilities outlining removal procedures. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act presumed there would be a nice big dump ready by 1998 for the nasty load. Didn’t happen. The energy secretary reports -- and I imagine beads of sweat dropping and forming a puddle on the Senate floor -- that 60 lawsuits have been filed against the fed for breach of contract.
So far, Bodman reports, the government has paid out $214 million in three settlements. Three.
The federal government is already liable to the tune of about $7 billion, Bodman notes. And even if the Act becomes law, 2017 looks a long way off.
Watch for more on: The Issue Won’t Go Away. Well, maybe it will, over time.
Author Marlene Lang at Yucca Mountain.
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