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Is Waterford's nuclear waste dump status permanent?

The highly radioactive nuclear waste being stored at Millstone Power Station in Waterford, as well as the nuclear material left behind in Haddam after the Connecticut Yankee plant was dismantled, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Maybe never. And that’s not acceptable.

The lack of concern about the nuclear waste storage problem was one of my takeaways from the editorial board’s meeting last week with leaders from Millstone-owner Dominion Energy, held virtually of course.

Chief Nuclear Officer Dan Stoddard seemed too comfortable with the status quo, which has altered Millstone from a nuclear station to a nuclear station and nuclear waste storage facility.

I would have felt more comfortable if Stoddard expressed some level of anger over the failure of the federal government to meet its obligation to remove the material and place it in safe storage for the thousands of years it will continue to emit dangerous levels of radiation.

But instead of voicing any urgency to get the stuff out of there, Stoddard offered assurances that the metal canisters, encased in concrete, that secure the spent nuclear fuel rods and block the radiation “will be secure for decades and certainly longer.”

Only when I reminded him that leaving the material there for decades was not the deal Waterford and Connecticut agreed to when the plants were licensed, did he say he was “sure” that “eventually” the federal government would meet its obligation and remove the nuclear waste.

I don’t know why he is so sure.

The deal when nuclear reactors were built across the country was that the fuel rods, when their energy was spent, would be temporarily stored in storage pools within the plants. In time they would be placed in canisters and transferred to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, on which the Department of Energy has spent $7.5 billion, collected from electric ratepayers, to build a safe depository deep within the mountain.

Highly radioactive waste and spent fuel from the production of nuclear weapons is stored there, but it has never opened for nuclear energy-produced waste as intended. Not moving forward with Yucca Mountain is one of the few things Presidents Obama and Trump have in common. All indications are President Biden will join them.

President Obama, in seeking to stay in the good graces of then Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, stalled the plans.

President Trump initially sought to restart the licensing procedure but reversed course early in 2020, which happened to be an election year with an outcome projected to be so close that Nevada’s six electoral votes could make a difference.

Still, Trump lost Nevada.

An alternative idea has surfaced of moving waste to a couple of other sites, rural locations in Texas and New Mexico have been discussed, before a consensus can be reached on what do with it.

But I see no urgency, anywhere, to tackle the challenge. No one wants to deal with the outcry that would result as this stuff is moved across the country from nearly a hundred locations, even if the science shows it can be done safely.

And as Stoddard told us, the situation is causing no fiscal pain for Dominion and other nuclear energy companies. The U.S. Department of Energy was required by a law passed by Congress to begin removing and permanently disposing of the spent fuel in 1998. When that didn’t happen, energy companies sued, and won. As a result, DOE is obligated to cover all the costs of storing the nuclear waste on site.

There are 31 storage containers at Millstone, each with 32 spent nuclear fuel assemblies. Dominion has built a concrete pad large enough for 135 canisters. On a pad in Haddam, along the Connecticut River, 43 steel-reinforced concrete casks hold all the fuel from the 28 years Connecticut Yankee operated.

These containers are monitored and secured and extremely robust in their design. They are safe, for now. But their contents will continue to emit dangerous levels of radiation for hundreds and thousands of years. Who knows what dystopian future might await humankind. Who could possibly assure, over that expanse of time, that tons of nuclear waste located along Long Island Sound and a major river that flows through all of New England will remain safely contained.

No one can.

Which is why the stuff should be entombed deep in a geologically stable depository as planned. Follow the science.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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