We have no say — why?

We will live with VY’s nuclear waste in our backyard for decades to come, but the NRC says we are voiceless about the manner in which it is stored

PUTNEY — In November 2014, I attended a national conference with 70 other activists opposed to the use of nuclear energy. Many have worked in this field for decades and have a deep technical grasp of the overwhelming and intractable problem of safely isolating toxic radioactive waste. I learned to ask questions I had not known even existed about the post-shutdown period.

As Vermont Yankee is in the process of closing, local people are learning the ugly truth of nuclear energy, the truth that the supporters of nukes never quite admit: that the sites hosting nuclear reactors already for four or five decades will be hosting high level waste for decades more - and very possibly forever.

The implications of this truth are many, and those of us living in the region around the reactor should have something to say about the manner in which this waste is stored.

However, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), we are voiceless in these decisions. Entergy, a corporation with no long-term commitment to our region, will be making all the choices.

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Entergy's decision to build a concrete pad in the flood plain of the Connecticut River and store the tons of high-level radioactive waste in Holtec casks seems like a fine interim solution to the waste-storage problem until you delve more deeply into the issue.

Here are some of the questions I came away with after the summit:

• Are these casks floodproof? In the era of a warming planet and sea-level rising, floods will occur more frequently. Does anyone know if these casks protect the environment from their lethal contents when they are immersed?

• How are these casks monitored for cracking and radioactive emissions? The NRC requires examining of one cask per site out of dozens, once every 25 years.

That standard is thoroughly inadequate, given that these casks have a history of cracking and that, due to the relatively short time these casks have been in use, nobody knows if they will maintain any structural integrity in 50 or 100 years.

• Should this incredibly dangerous waste be out on a concrete pad? Would we all be safer if it were in a reinforced building, or at least behind a berm, and not so vulnerable to attack by a terrorist or a deranged person?

• How is it that Entergy will be allowed to withdraw all funding from the Emergency Planning Zone process next year? The risky procedure of moving the highly radioactive spent fuel from the pool into the casks will not be completed until sometime around 2020.

• Far more technically sophisticated casks are used in Germany, France, and Japan. These casks have thicker metal walls, and they allow for realtime remote monitoring to alert those in charge of the waste should there pressure change or another worrisome development arise.

Why are these casks not even in use in the United States?

• There is a reason why those who understand the risks of moving this waste to a central repository have labeled the process “mobile Chernobyl.” The dangers of this highly radioactive spent fuel cannot be overstated.

If there should be a train or a truck accident, a large area around the accident site could be forever uninhabitable. Our rail lines and interstate highways travel through all our urban areas, thus endangering millions of citizens - with no emergency planning zone around the accident site.

In addition, our roads, rails, and bridges have many structural weaknesses due to neglected and deferred maintenance. As desirable as it would be to rid the Vermont Yankee site of this waste, how can we support the transport of this most toxic cargo?

• If a cask fails and the waste needs to be transferred to a new cask, how can it be done?

The only field-tested method for moving fuel from one cask into another is in a fuel pool. Yankee's fuel pool will be taken down as part of decommissioning. Voices in the nuclear industry promise that new technology will be available, but we have heard their promises about future waste storage methods before and cannot trust them to come through.

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The more I learned, the more deeply I understood that getting nuclear waste policy right is impossible. Even after some of the most brilliant scientific minds in the United States have spent seven decades studying how to neutralize, isolate, or reuse this waste, the industry has failed completely to arrive at a solution.

We always hear that an answer is around the corner, but the reality is that production of the most toxic poison in history is just a bad idea and needs to be curtailed forever.

The idea that we have no say in creating the safest-possible high-level waste repository in our region is difficult to accept. The only hope in this dangerous process is to change the federal laws that allow corporations to hold all the cards.

We will be working toward that end. After all, our families and friends inhabit this area, and we would like it to be livable into the distant future.

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