Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2013-2014
By Paul Vos Benkowski
Radioactive waste is no great secret. It is an intentionally ignored problem of the nuclear industry, the one it doesn’t want anyone to examine or write about. The industry would rather propagate the myth that nuclear power is “too cheap to meter” and “carbon free.” Never mind the waste. So we here at Nukewatch like to confront nuclear’s dirty work and keep track of moves in a shell game that pretends to answer the unanswerable: What is to be done with a waste product that is dangerous, cannot be contained and will not go away in our, or anyone’s, lifetime?
Like nuclear waste itself, the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump project is still hanging around. When the Yucca Mountain site was first nominated as the nation’s main radioactive waste site, the Energy Department submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for review. If the site was deemed adequate then construction could begin. The first volume of the report was soon published, but follow-up volumes were published only as technical reports with the conclusions removed. In August of this year, a federal appeals court ruled that the NRC was “flouting the law” when it stopped work on the site in 2010. As of Nov. 18, the NRC has directed its staff to complete work on its safety report, despite construction of Yucca Mountain being all but abandoned.
The tentative cancellation of Yucca has not stopped the Department of Energy from collecting over $750 million in user fees from nuclear reactor operators around the nation to fund the construction of a centralized dump site. That is until Nov. 19, 2013, when Judge Laurence H. Silberman, a Federal Appeals Court judge in the District of Columbia, ruled that “until the department comes to some conclusion as to how nuclear wastes are to be deposited permanently, it seems quite unfair to force petitioners to pay fees for a hypothetical option.” What they have already paid might cover that cost, Judge Silberman wrote, adding, “the government apparently has no idea.”
So with the Yucca proposal in a state of flux, the nuclear industry is scrambling to find a short-term place for its radioactive waste. As one can imagine, there is a lot of money involved in this waste business (see “Big Players” on page 6). One major player is the Mississippi Energy Institute (MEI), a group of state energy companies. In August 2013, the group proposed building a massive nuclear industry complex in Mississippi that would include a radioactive waste “recycling” facility, as well as short- and long-term waste storage. MEI made its pitch to the Mississippi Senate’s Economic Development Committee, and the group has released a business plan that touts the proposal’s “significant economic development opportunities.” This isn’t the first time Mississippi has considered such a Faustian bargain. In the 1980s a similar plan was hatched but met with such a public opposition that the idea was scuttled. Further hearings and public meetings are planned before any new nuclear industry park comes to fruition.
The US still faces the age old problem of what to do with reactor waste. The NRC recently completed a series of public hearings about its Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement on waste fuel. Mostly what the public has said is that unless the industry is shut down, its waste problem can’t be solved.