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An ad touting the post-WWII era’s notion of “atoms for peace” — a promise that didn’t take into account the question of what to do with deadly radioactive waste. 

Voices / Viewpoint

Our brand-new reality

By the admission of two successive chairs of the NRC, the federal agency is ill-equipped to deal with the decommissioning of reactors — and the waste they’ve left in their wake, the most toxic substance known to mankind. We need more than faith and promises to remove — or at least secure — this deadly material.

Lissa Weinmann raises a family and works (in the VY emergency planning zone in Brattleboro, she notes) as a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York.

Brattleboro

The news was as stone cold as the freezing Hampton Inn meeting room where community members sat for four hours: The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced that over the next three to four years rules governing decommissioning will be rewritten too late for decisions being made right now about the future of Vermont Yankee.

In other words, we are guinea pigs in an experiment to see how long our country can delay facing the gigantic problem of nuclear waste until a catastrophe forces decisions we can and should be making right now, starting with changing national laws governing nuclear waste.

About 200 people gathered to comment on plans for long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste at the retired Entergy Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant.

NRC personnel said five times during the meeting that they do not “approve” Entergy Corporation’s Post Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report, describing the company’s plans.

This wordplay left us wondering: If the NRC staff take such pains to remove themselves publicly from “approving” the plan, then who is ultimately responsible for the costly, long-term task of safe decommissioning?

Entergy? The state? The federal government? Taxpayers like you and me?

You see where this is heading.

We are living a brand-new reality in untested terrain guided by rules and laws that never presaged the gigantic national problem of built-up nuclear waste in communities — like ours — completely unprepared for the task.

And while the federal government scours the map to find a place that might actually want to take our waste in exchange for big money, our community and 100 others like ours are already doing so, free of charge.

This waste at VY is the most toxic substance known to mankind. It is cancer-causing, unstable, and difficult to contain. The plant’s spent-fuel pools are subject to potentially uncontrollable fire if power is disrupted for less than a day. The waste is a terrorist target, homeland security threat, unfathomably expensive to manage, and possibly here forever.

How do we positively deal with this new reality?

Yes, the community is burnt out on Vermont Yankee. People want to believe that when the reactor shut down, so did the risk.

We know that immediate decontamination (DECON), not SAFSTOR, is the way to keep jobs, activity, and vigilance at VY. The Windham Regional Commission and the state advocate this course.

So how can Entergy chart its own course backed by NRC?

* * *

It was disappointing that not one Windham County legislator, nor any member of Vermont’s federal delegation, spoke out to back immediate decontamination at what the NRC billed its first and last public meeting on decommissioning.

Where were the passionate voices of those who represent those of us living with the waste and all its implications, from property values to emergency planning to radioactive groundwater contamination to the federal subsidies we should demand to help us in this awesome task we bear for the rest of the nation? Our daily newspaper omitted coverage entirely, placing a story about a cat rescued from a house fire on the front page where the NRC story should have been.

These elected officials must become more engaged in expressing loudly and in unison a different, more positive vision, and our media needs to keep us better informed because we can’t count on the “experts” to see us through.

The NRC’s rules are not geared for supervising the decommissioning of reactors,” The New York Times wrote in a November 2014 story on the NRC’s departing chairperson, Allison Macfarlane.

The story said Macfarlane admitted that the commission’s rules on reactors are more focused on construction and operation than on the ‘back end’ shutdown and waste management.

Macfarlane and her predecessor, Gregory Jaczko, each warned upon their respective departures from the NRC that the agency must to do more to keep old reactors safe.

Jaczko went a step further touring the U.S. with the former prime minister of Japan, who presided over the start of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

That disaster has rendered uninhabitable an area about the size of the triangle marked by Keene, Brattleboro, and Greenfield.

Jaczko warned that aging plants — like those with Fukushima and Vernon’s General Electric Mark I containment, and 22 others in the U.S. — should close and that their hot waste (stored high above the reactor in a design that was long ago abandoned) be moved to safer dry-cask storage.

* * *

It is to Entergy’s credit that it agreed to “expedite” moving this super-hot waste from those spent-fuel pools to concrete casks by 2020, even though NRC rules allow the company to keep waste in the pools for many more years despite serious fire concerns. That threat is why the state is fighting so hard to maintain the emergency planning that Entergy is now allowed to cut off.

But despite Governor Peter Shumlin’s feel-good Memorandum of Understanding with Entergy on the decommissioning details, federal laws trump all, just as they did when Entergy disregarded a promise to honor Vermont’s decision not to issue a Certificate of Public Good to allow the reactor to operate legally.

The heads of Vermont agencies now opposing Entergy’s decommissioning plan are similarly impotent in the face of antiquated federal laws governing the process.

Vermont Department of Health Radiological Health Chief Bill Irwin’s comments at the meeting were particularly chilling regarding the plant’s lack of “breadth and depth of radiological monitoring” and emergency plans in the case of a spent-fuel fire, among other concerns.

* * *

Nuclear enthusiasts of the 1950s, drunk with the possibilities of the new technology and eager to divert attention from the horrific aftermath of the A-bomb to a friendly application, devised the Atoms for Peace initiative to promote nuclear electricity “too cheap to meter” — pushed by an unprecedented global advertising campaign (think Mad Men).

Ironically, those in the cult of the atom — the scientists and policy makers responsible for this proliferation — put a great deal of emphasis on faith.

Averting their eyes to the reality of waste buildup, they believed future technology would solve the problem of growing stores of waste at military weapons production sites and nuclear reactors across the country.

Their belief was enshrined in the Waste Confidence Rule, which essentially assured the industry and the public that an actual plan for waste would someday appear.

This “confidence” led to the federal government allowing nuclear companies to produce electricity and take profits while it assumed ultimate responsibility for the industry’s pollution, essentially obscuring the true cost of nuclear power production.

Today, the cost of maintaining and supervising the nuclear waste exceeds the value produced by the plants themselves. After 60 years of trying, no viable technology exists today to neutralize nuclear waste. The U.S.’s experiments with reprocessing have led to a moratorium on that technology because it is too costly, too dirty, and still leaves an even- more-dangerous-and-difficult-to-manage waste product.

The U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, has ruled that the NRC cannot license or relicense more reactors until a real solution for nuclear waste is outlined beyond this absurd rule. Prescient California banned new reactors until a waste solution was found 40 years ago, around the time VY was built.

* * *

Emboldened by 60 years of the feds kicking the can down the road on waste, Entergy has put forth a new faith-based initiative I call the ‘Market Confidence Edict’: Let the $655 million it currently manages in VY’s decommissioning fund grow for 30 years so there will be more money for cleanup later on.

Huh?

“Costs will increase and the picture is not going to get better,” Vermont Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Reccia pointed out.

What if Entergy goes bankrupt? (It is overexposed in the aging-reactor category.) Who administers the fund then? NRC officials couldn’t answer those questions.

Decontamination simply must start immediately. The fund sits untapped until the spent fuel is in casks — an expense borne by the Department of Energy (DOE) under current law.

If the market grows in that time, there might be enough to pay for what Entergy estimates: some $850 million (in 2015 dollars). The company plans to use its own subsidiary to do the work; no request for proposals or local companies need apply, and no factoring in the new groundwater pollution unreferenced in Entergy’s plan.

If that’s not enough, the DOE should be enabled to step in with the extra needed from the $38 billion available in its federal Nuclear Waste Fund.

The Nuclear Waste Fund was established through the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to pay for the DOE to remove all high-level radioactive waste currently stranded at some 125 commercial and defense facilities around the country and transport it to one “central repository” — by 1998.

That place was then Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a state with few people then but a big population now.

The fund collected one-tenth of a cent fee paid by consumers of electricity from nuclear power plants — about $750 million annually — until November 2013, when the D.C. circuit court ruled that DOE must stop collecting fees since no viable repository is in sight. So cleanup funds are no longer being collected, and the waste keeps building.

Companies, including Entergy, have filed more than 70 breach-of-contract claims against the DOE since 1998, resulting in more than $1.2 billion in damages paid by U.S. Taxpayers. (It should be noted that this amount excludes some $150 million the Department of Justice has spent litigating these claims.)

This is how Entergy plans to recoup the funds to move waste from fuel to casks.

Yucca might never open and, even if it does, it would already be full. The one other site that was held up as an example where such central storage can work — the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico — suffered a series of explosions underground in 2014 and is now indefinitely closed.

The nation’s aging rail lines complicate the potential movement of such waste, causing some to question whether the waste should simply be stored as safely as possible where it is.

And that raises a big question for our community.

Might it be better to plan for the permanent storage of VY waste instead of investing in temporary fixes that might not provide the safety and security we need at least for the next 50 years — the time that both the DOE and Entergy estimate it would take for the waste to be removed?

Since the courts have said no new licenses can be granted until a solution is found, the industry has an incentive to rewrite laws and update the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to allow for several interim sites as opposed to one pie-in-the-sky central repository. This overhaul of the law will open the possibility of using the Nuclear Waste Fund to safeguard our communities now.

But our concerns — and those of the other communities shouldering the burden for the country’s nuclear waste — will not be represented if we fail to vocally and clearly represent our interests.

“The spent fuel problem is a national issue, not an issue the NRC can solve alone,” Douglas Broaddus, chief of the plant licensing IV-2 and decommissioning transition branch of the NRC, said in closing the meeting.

The NRC will take public comments until March 23, so anyone who missed the meeting still has time to weigh in.

Let’s accept the key role we play and join with other reactor communities to fight.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #294 (Wednesday, February 25, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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