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Don't store N-waste at Millstone forever

Published July 08. 2012 4:00AM

With all due respect to our fine headline writers here at The Day, the front-page July 4 headline - "Millstone wants to keep more nuclear waste on-site" - wasn't quite right. True, Millstone Power Station owner Dominion has begun the process of seeking permission to significantly increase the amount of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel it can place in storage casks on the property. But it is not so much that Dominion wants to keep more nuclear waste on site in containment casks, it is more the case it concludes it has to. The federal government continues to renege on its commitment to provide a national repository for the nuclear waste produced by the nation's plants. As a result, nuclear plants across the country are increasing their plans for long-term storage on site.

Millstone's plans and similar policies being taken at other plants is reason for great concern. As more nuclear waste is moved from storage pools within the plants, which were designed for temporary warehousing of the spent nuclear rods, and moved into more robust and stable dry storage casks, the process takes on a feeling of permanency. With the political will lacking in Washington to come up with a comprehensive solution, the potential increases that the fallback option will be more than 100 high-level nuclear waste storage facilities scattered across the country at operating or decommissioned plants. Millstone is pursuing plans to hold all the spent nuclear fuel generated by the plants through the decommissioning of the final unit, Millstone 3,in 2045, increasing the nuclear waste casks on site from 19 to 135.

Already in Connecticut, nuclear wastes sits in casks near the Connecticut River at the site for the former Connecticut Yankee nuclear plant, as well as at Millstone.

The far better solution is one, or perhaps two, centrally located waste sites, held in stable geologic formations assuring safe containment for the thousands of years the spent fuel rods continue to emit dangerous radiation.

The U.S. Department of Energy spent more than $10 billion studying and developing a national high-level nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But during 20 years of study and development the project faced constant technical, political and legal challenges. In 2010, President Barack Obama pulled the plug on the project. It is no coincidence that this appeased a key political ally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, whose opposition to Yucca Mountain has helped boost his popularity in that state.

But don't count on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to set things straight and revive the project. Mr. Romney says the people of Nevada should have the final say. Requiring popular approval by a state makes it likely a nuclear waste storage facility will not be built there or in any state.

The failure to solve the nuclear waste problem could block or at least slow the construction of a new generation of nuclear plants, which this newspaper sees as critical to meeting the nation's energy needs without increasing greenhouse gases. At least nine states have passed laws prohibiting new plant construction until the waste issue is resolved.

The dry casks are a safer alternative than the spent fuel storage pools, which run the risk of a nuclear fire and large radioactive releases if the water drains and the fuel is uncovered, as seen at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan after the March 2011 tsunami.

But the casks are not a permanent solution and it is incumbent upon the new chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Allison Macfarlane, to produce some credible alternatives. This remains far more a political than a scientific problem.

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