Transport to ‘temporary’ storage sites with option of reprocessing
The transportation and storage subcommittee of America’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC see www.brc.gov) endorsed centralizing the tens of thousands of tons of irradiated (or “spent”) nuclear fuel currently in storage at nuclear reactor sites and some nuclear weapons production sites in 32 states. The panel did not name a proposed location, but used the words “consent-based” to indicate that a volunteer site would be preferred.
Earlier this year, members of the business sector near both the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico indicated to the panel an interest in “volunteering” to take the waste. Community members and other officials in both South Carolina and New Mexico have expressed strong opposition to such a plan, and an opposition campaign already has started in North Carolina (see www.nonuclearwasteinwnc.com) .
The full Commission is scheduled to issue its recommendations in July. Commission Co-Chair Lee Hamilton emphasized that it is not bound by the recommendations of the subcommittees – but will factor them heavily in the overall report.
Centralized storage would trigger the largest nuclear waste shipping campaign in history. If the waste were to travel to South Carolina, per the volunteers in that area, about two thirds of it is north of that site. Due to the greater populations of Charlotte and Atlanta, the I-26 and I-40 corridors are likely to be used as transport routes. Nuclear waste transport proposals associated with more than 30 previous (failed) centralized storage proposals have triggered strong local opposition, including in Asheville where five years ago citizens published two reports on the topic, still available at www.nuclearcrossroads.com.
“This opening of the floodgates on decades of shipments of enormous amounts of deadly radioactivity on the nation’s roads, rails and waterways through major cities and agricultural breadbaskets was dubbed “Mobile Chernobyl” during the 1990s. Accidents or attacks on any of the more than 10,000 casks could catastrophically contaminate large areas,” said Diane D’Arrigo, Director of the Radioactive Waste Project at Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “Such a plan has been repeatedly opposed by safety advocates working with cities, counties, states and Tribes. This is primarily a plan to expand production of more deadly radioactive waste; the Commission should be supporting nuclear phase-out like Germany.”
The National Academy of Sciences studied irradiated fuel transport in 2006 and its report repeated platitudes about safety while pronouncing security to be an unresolved and potent issue.
“The waste is currently sitting at zero miles per hour on presumably relatively secure reactor sites,” said Mary Olson, Director of the Southeast Office of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, “Putting it on wheels moving anywhere from 2-60 miles per hour outside those gates will not make it safer. The other issue is that as it leaves the reactor gate, under current law, it becomes the property and liability of the U.S. taxpayer.”
The presentation was made by former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard Meserve, and former U.S. Congressman Phil Sharp, now on Duke Energy’s Board of Directors. The plan is a replay of more than 30 previous attempts to centralize the waste.
“Grassroots groups including those from reactor communities, gave a clear, positive recommendation to the BRC: highly radioactive waste should stay on reactor sites until a program for long-term isolation from the environment is available,” Olson continued. “We are calling for substantially improved storage at the reactor site, including emptying older waste from fuel pools into dry storage containers and improving safety and security for these containers. Creating a temporary site by definition would result in transporting this waste more than once – a needless compounding of hazards to the public. Even perfect containers emit radiation; this is a public health issue even without an accident,” said Olson. More than 170 organizations have endorsed this “hardened onsite storage” approach (http://www.nirs.org/radwaste/policy/hossprinciples 3232010.pdf).
Equivocation in the BRC committee report over whether the highly radioactive atomic debris is a “waste” or a “resource” is made clear by the panel’s intent to leave open the option to reprocess irradiated nuclear fuel. This would reverse a 40-year federal commitment to treat the weapons-usable fissile plutonium generated by the civilian sector as waste. Since this plutonium —1% of the waste — is the only portion that would be reused, nuclear reprocessing is more appropriately viewed as a form of extraction rather than “recycling.”
“We call on the full BRC to reject these subcommittee recommendations and instead implement the Hardened On-Site Storage plan that has been presented to them,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of NIRS. “The Fukushima accident shows we must not waste time with a new site-search before moving waste from dangerously overcrowded fuel pools, and that we must choose the safest technologies available today. The HOSS plan is the only idea that has been presented that meets those goals. Beyond that, we must accelerate the transition away from nuclear power and toward a nuclearfree, carbon-free energy future.”
What is High-Level Radioactive Waste?
• The nuclear establishment refers to high-level radioactive waste as "spent" or "used" nuclear fuel.
• Irradiated nuclear fuel discharged from atomic reactors is highly radioactive, a million times more so than when first loaded into a reactor core as "fresh" fuel due to the build up of fission products and transuranic elements during uranium atom splitting.
• If unshielded, irradiated fuel recently removed from a reactor could deliver a lethal dose of beta, gamma, and neutron radiation to a person standing close enough in seconds. Even after decades of radioactive decay, a few minutes of unshielded exposure would be enough to deliver a fatal dose.
• The vast quantities of radiation contained in concentrated stockpiles of irradiated fuel, if expelled into the environment by accident or on purpose, could kill or injure tens or even hundreds of thousands of people - or millions over time - and contaminate entire regions, causing hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage.
• Certain radioactive elements (such as alpha emitters, the most well known of which is plutonium-239) in "spent" fuel will remain hazardous to humans and other living beings for hundreds of thousands to millions of years. Even if buried underground in leaky geology, these wastes could eventually escape back out into the biosphere, with disastrous consequences.
Reprocessed high-level radioactive wastes (HLRW) - the highly radioactive liquid, sludge, or re-solidified "leftovers" from physically chopping up and then chemically dissolving irradiated fuel in order to extract still-fissile plutonium and uranium - have most of the same hazardous characteristics as un-reprocessed irradiated fuel.
• Irradiated fuel and high-level nuclear wastes are among the most hazardous poisons ever created. In addition, there is the danger that fissile materials still present in the wastes can form a "critical mass," causing an inadvertent nuclear chain reaction that would generate a deadly beam of neutrons and possibly even enough heat to melt through the container within which it is held, worsening danger and hastening leakage.