Spent fuel from the reactor of the former Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant sits inside these casks in Vernon in this 2019 photo.
Olga Peters/Commons file photo
Spent fuel from the reactor of the former Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant sits inside these casks in Vernon in this 2019 photo.

The most toxic substance on the planet

Not one ounce of nearly 100,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste has been safely disposed of — and Vermont Yankee’s fuel could be in our backyard in perpetuity

BRATTLEBORO — A few additions to Emma Cotton's informative review of the ongoing decommissioning of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon are in order.

Scott State, CEO of NorthStar, the company decommissioning the plant, suggests that the spent fuel at the plant will remain there "as it stands today [...] for some time."

"Some time" is of course a relative term, given Mr. State's concession that "in perpetuity is how long that fuel can stay there."

This raises the question: What is this country going to do with its high-level radioactive waste?

Euphemistically referred to by the nuclear power industry as "spent fuel," it is arguably the most toxic substance on the planet. And not one ounce of the now nearly 100,000 tons produced by the industry in its 60-plus-year life span, in this country alone, has been safely disposed of.

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While the industry and its allies like to blame politics for the demise of Yucca Mountain, still the only legally designated permanent repository site in the country, they should blame the facts.

In fact, the Department of Energy's environmental impact statement for the facility was rejected by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2004, its 10,000-year "containment" time frame deemed inadequate for the 250,000-year time frame demanded by the science.

No effort has been made by the Department of Energy since then to meet that stricter standard at Yucca Mountain. Nor, in the absence of any further initiative from Congress, has there been any substantive effort to even study alternatives for a repository.

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The industry is pushing hard for the licensing of centralized interim storage facilities where it can temporarily store its high-level radioactive waste piling up at sites old and sites very old. It is also very bad for the image of an industry that wants to make a whole lot more of it.

President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future laid out a plan to foster consent-based siting for any temporary or permanent federal high-level radioactive waste facility. While the Department of Energy continues, still, to plan for such an eventuality, private companies have jumped into the fray.

This is where Waste Control Specialists, also led by Scott State of NorthStar, comes in, again. It owns the facility in Texas where NorthStar is disposing of Vermont Yankee's low-level waste, but it has also partnered with the French government nuclear fuel cycle company Orano to create interim storage partners to build, right next door, a centralized interim storage facility to receive Vermont Yankee's and the rest of the industry's high-level radioactive waste.

* * *

The impulse to be rid of this waste, whatever the cost, is understandable.

Each of the nearly 60 canisters stored at the Vermont Yankee site contains approximately the same amount of cesium-137, among other highly toxic radionuclides.

These including plutonium that was released in the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1988 and contaminated approximately 150,000 square miles of territory and hastened the deaths of upward of one million people.

Of course, you can't just dump this stuff in someone else's backyard without raising some eyebrows.

Importantly, at this stage, according to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, no interim storage facility, public or private, can be licensed without a licensed final repository in place.

And though the industry's loyal promoter, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, rammed through a license approval of the proposed centralized interim storage facility, the 5th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, as noted by Ms. Cotton, ruled the license to be invalid, because, well, it was illegal.

Not to mention the objections of powerful oil and mineral interests, which brought the case to court, and the Texas Legislature's outright rejection of the proposed facility.

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What now? We should applaud NorthStar's timely and on-budget decommissioning of Vermont Yankee. But we should not jump to the industry's insistence that the waste be moved "now"! The suggestion that it even can be is far-fetched.

At a Vermont Yankee nuclear decommissioning citizens advisory panel federal nuclear waste policy committee meeting in 2021, a Department of Energy representative estimated that, once an interim storage facility or permanent repository is established, it will take approximately seven to 15 years to implement specific transportation plans. She acknowledged that this estimate did not include time anticipated to be consumed by legal challenges to those plans.

Further, there is currently a $55 billion shortfall in the Nuclear Waste Fund set aside to handle all of the U.S.'s current store of high-level radioactive waste.

Moving the waste without having any idea of where it is going to finally end up, and then having to move it again, stretches the bounds of logic. Allowing a private company to receive this toxic legacy of a national economic policy - nuclear power - gone awry, without state and local consent, sets a dangerous precedent. "Interim" storage, after a logistically complex and hugely expensive operation, can easily turn into that "in perpetuity" that Mr. State refers to.

Further, Vermont and New Hampshire both are on the short list of geologically appropriate choices for a permanent repository. Imagine how you'll feel about all of this when they come knocking at your door.

We should take Mr. State at his word. The high-level radioactive waste canisters at Vermont Yankee are stable for "hundreds of years" and "fully guarded, until that fuel is gone."

Given the prospect of an extended stay onsite, the facility should be beefed up to discourage any mischief in these troubled times, and the local community, Vernon in particular, should be compensated for serving as the interim storage facility that it never asked to be.

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Finally, everyone - and I mean everyone - needs to pay attention to the nuclear power industry as it makes the case that its expansion - not just nationally but worldwide - is the solution to global warming. This, the most technologically sophisticated country in the world, struggles to cope with the toxic legacy of nuclear power as well as the ongoing dangers and inevitable tragedies associated with the everyday operations of these plants.

Decisions made with regard to high-level radioactive waste and the industry in general will affect not just our children, and their children, and their children, too. They will affect, literally, thousands of generations. Once high-level radioactive waste gets into the environment, there is no putting it back into the bottle.

The effects on this planet's biosphere could be terminal.

Schuyler Gould is former president of New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution and a current member of Citizens Awareness Network. This piece comes to us via VtDigger.

This Voices Response was submitted to The Commons.

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