Waterford's radiation dilemma

'Welcome to Waterford, home to one of the nation's long-term, high-level radioactive waste storage facilities. We're stuck with it and we have no idea when we're going to get rid of it."

While I don't suspect that sign will be going up anytime soon at entryways into the town, it does reflect the reality Waterford faces, as do communities across the nation that agreed to host nuclear power stations decades ago to meet the nation's energy needs.

When the federal government was pitching nuclear power generation it came with the promise that the high-level radioactive waste it produces would only be stored at the plants temporarily. In time the federal government would take possession, either reprocessing the stuff or shipping it to a permanent depository.

The government abandoned reprocessing of nuclear waste in the 1970s, concluding it was too costly and too risky because the weapons-grade plutonium it creates could fall into the hands of terrorists or rogue states.

Last year President Obama put a stop to the alternative plan to move nuclear waste to the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada for permanent disposal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and an early key supporter of Obama's presidential bid, had long fought the Yucca plan. His success in getting the Obama administration to stop the project helped Reid survive a tough re-election.

The U.S. Department of Energy spent more than $10 billion studying and developing the mountain to store nuclear waste. An operating permit application was pending with the NRC when the Obama administration pulled the plug. Electricity customers, who pay one-tenth-of-a-cent per kilowatt-hour into the Nuclear Waste Fund, largely financed the Yucca program.

Federal law required the DOE to begin taking the waste in February 1998. It hasn't. Utilities have filed about 80 lawsuits against the department for breach of contract and the Department of Justice warns damages paid by the government will top $12 billion by 2020 without a solution.

But a recent action by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission shows it has little confidence there will be a solution anytime soon. The NRC in December amended its "Waste Confidence" rule, concluding that the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel can remain safely stored at current and former nuclear plants for 60 years beyond the operating license.

Back in 1990, the NRC had expressed its confidence that the waste could remain 30 years past the operating license, concluding that would be sufficient for the government to approve a plan to begin moving the stuff. Silly them.

And that's not the end of it. The NRC staff is already laying the groundwork for another rule change, allowing the waste material to remain 120 years after the end of operating licenses. For the Millstone 2 reactor that deadline would expire in the year 2155, and for Millstone 3, 10 years later.

The NRC sees this as a political, not scientific problem.

"The commission continues to have confidence that a repository can be constructed in 25-35 years, but it is uncertain whether the social and political consensus necessary for a successful repository program will be reached in the near future," wrote the NRC in its recent ruling, which included its talk of a 120-year extension.

Connecticut Attorney General Jepsen has joined his counterparts in New York and Vermont in a legal challenge to the 60-year decision. The NRC should be required to perform environmental impact studies, the petition claims, a process that would give the public a chance to challenge the science. The state can't even build a road using federal money without an environmental impact study.

The NRC contends it has full authority and doesn't have to do such a study.

At least Waterford has operating reactors and the jobs, electricity and property taxes they generate. Haddam has the nuclear waste, but no plant. Connecticut Yankee ceased operation in 1996. It's gone, but the old fuel rods remain, stored in casks at the site. Most of the spent fuel rods at Millstone remain submerged in pools within the plants, cooling them and containing the radiation. Plant operator Dominion has moved some fuel rods into storage casks.

The NRC faces a dilemma. It wants to see nuclear plant construction revived to meet the nation's energy needs. But the commission's own policy states it "would not continue to license reactors if it did not have reasonable confidence that the wastes can and will in due course be disposed of safely."

Thus the "Waste Confidence" rulings that safe disposal can mean leaving where it is for a long time.

And utilities can probably keep it safely where it is, particularly as operators move more of it into concrete casks. The waste consists of slender fuel rods filled with uranium pellets that fired the atom-splitting process. Proper containment can keep the deadly radiation sealed.

But having the material stored indefinitely at more than 100 locations well into another century raises serious monitoring and security questions. It is not a solution, hinders the chances for needed expansion of nuclear power and violates the guarantees host communities received.

If Yucca's not the answer, the Obama administration is obligated to provide an alternative.

Editor's note

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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