Archive for the ‘Nuclear Waste Problems’ Category

Struggling With Japan’s Nuclear Waste, Six Years After Disaster

March 14, 2017


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A worker on the outside wall of the Reactor 2 building at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station last month. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI NUCLEAR POWER STATION — Six years after the largest nuclear disaster in a quarter-century, Japanese officials have still not solved a basic problem: what to do with an ever-growing pile of radioactive waste. Each form of waste at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, where three reactors melted down after an earthquake and a tsunami on March 11, 2011, presents its own challenges.

400 Tons of Contaminated Water Per Day

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Tanks for contaminated water, with Reactors 1 and 2 in the background. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
The Tokyo Electric Power Company is pumping water nonstop through the three reactors to cool melted fuel that remains too hot and radioactive to remove. About 400 tons of water passes through the reactors every day, including groundwater that seeps in. The water picks up radiation in the reactors and then is diverted into a decontamination facility.

But the decontamination filters cannot remove all the radioactive material. So for now, all this water is being stored in 1,000 gray, blue and white tanks on the grounds. The tanks already hold 962,000 tons of contaminated water, and Tokyo Electric is installing more tanks. It is also trying to slow the flow of groundwater through the reactors by building an underground ice wall.

Within a few years, though, and no one is sure exactly when, the plant may run out of room to store the contaminated water. “We cannot continue to build tanks forever,” said Shigenori Hata, an official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

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The authorities are debating whether it might be acceptable, given the relatively low radioactive levels in the water, to dilute the contaminated water and then dump it into the ocean. But local fishermen are vehemently opposed. Many people still do not trust Tokyo Electric because of its bungled response to the disaster, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

3,519 Containers of Radioactive Sludge


Shipping containers holding reactor maintenance equipment from the plant. Other containers at the site hold rubble or filters full of radioactive sludge. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
The process of decontaminating the water leaves radioactive sludge trapped in filters, which are being held in thousands of containers of different sizes.

Tokyo Electric says it cannot quantify the amount of radioactive sludge being generated. But it says it is experimenting with what to do with it, including mixing it with cement or iron. Then it will have to decide how to store it.

64,700 Cubic Meters of Discarded Protective Clothing

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An employee putting on work attire.
Veda Shastri/The New York Times
The estimated 6,000 cleanup workers at the site put on new protective gear every day. These hazmat suits, face masks, rubber gloves and shoe coverings are thrown out at the end of each shift. The clothing is compressed and stored in 1,000 steel boxes stacked around the site.

To date, more than 64,700 cubic meters of gear has been discarded, the equivalent of 17 million one-gallon containers. Tokyo Electric says it will eventually incinerate all this contaminated clothing to reduce the space needed to store it.

Branches and Logs From 220 Acres of Deforested Land

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Cut trees on the grounds of the Fukushima plant.
Veda Shastri/The New York Times
The plant’s grounds were once dotted with trees, and a portion was even designated as a bird sanctuary. But workers have cleared about 220 acres of trees since the meltdown spewed radiation over them.

Now, piles of branches and tree trunks are stacked all over the site. Officials say there are about 80,000 cubic meters of this waste, and all of it will have to be incinerated and stored someday.

200,400 Cubic Meters of Radioactive Rubble


The shell of the Reactor 1 building at the plant. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
Explosions during the meltdown filled the reactors with rubble. Workers and robots are slowly and carefully trying to remove this tangled mass of crushed concrete, pipes, hoses and metal.

Tokyo Electric estimates that more than 200,400 cubic meters of rubble — all of it radioactive — have been removed so far and stored in custom-made steel boxes. That is the equivalent of about 3,000 standard 40-foot shipping containers.

3.5 Billion Gallons of Soil

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Bags of contaminated soil are stored in this lot in the town of Namie.
Veda Shastri/The New York Times
Thousands of plastic garbage bags sit in neat rows in the fields and abandoned towns surrounding the Fukushima plant. They contain soil that was scraped from land that was exposed to radiation in the days after the accident.

Japan’s Ministry of the Environment estimates that it has bagged 3.5 billion gallons of soil, and plans to collect much more. It will eventually incinerate some of the soil, but that will only reduce the volume of the radioactive waste, not eliminate it.

The ministry has already begun building a massive, interim storage facility in Fukushima prefecture and negotiating with 2,360 landowners for the thousands of acres needed to complete it. And that is not even a long-term solution: The government says that after 30 years it will need another site — or sites — to store radioactive waste.

1,573 Nuclear Fuel Rods


A pool at the facility for storing spent fuel rods. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
The ultimate goal of the cleanup is to cool and, if possible, remove the uranium and plutonium fuel that was inside the three reactors at the time of the disaster.

Hundreds of spent fuel rods are in cooling pools inside the reactors, and the company hopes to have cleared away enough rubble to begin removing them next year. The much bigger challenge will be removing the fuel that was in use in the reactor core at the time of the meltdown.

The condition and location of this molten fuel debris are still largely unknown. In one reactor where a robot was sent in January, much of the melted fuel is believed to have burned through the bottom of the inner reactor vessel and burrowed into the thick concrete foundation of the containment structure.

The plan is to completely seal the containment vessels, fill them with water and use robots to find and remove the molten fuel debris. But the rubble, the lethal levels of radiation and the risk of letting radiation escape make this an exceedingly difficult task.

In January, a camera inserted into one of the reactors detected radiation levels high enough to kill a person in less than a minute. A robot that was sent into the reactor last month had to be abandoned after debris blocked its path and radiation disabled it.

Tokyo Electric hopes to begin removing fuel debris from the reactor cores in 2021. The entire effort could take decades. Some say the radioactive material may prove impossible to remove safely and have suggested leaving it and entombing Fukushima under a concrete and steel sarcophagus like the one used at Chernobyl.

But the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric say they are committed to removing all the waste and cleaning the site, estimated at a cost of $188.6 billion.

“We want to return it to a safe state,” said Yuichi Okamura, general manager of the company’s nuclear power and plant siting division. “We promised the local people that we would recover the site and make it a safe ground again.”

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A monitoring post in Naraha shows the radiation level at the entrance gate to temporary storage for contaminated soil. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
Correction: March 13, 2017
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the contents of shipping containers at the plant. The ones in the photograph hold reactor maintenance equipment, not rubble. (Rubble and radioactive sludge are held in other containers.)

Correction: March 14, 2017
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized how lethal levels of radiation were found in one of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors in January. The radiation was detected with a camera inserted into the reactor, not a robot.

A version of this article appears in print on March 13, 2017, on Page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: Nuclear Waste’s Toll and Challenge in Japan, Six Years After Disaster. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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A Reporting Team’s Nuclear Stress Test: Hazmat Suits, Face Masks and 9 Flights of Stairs MARCH 13, 2017

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The Looming Environmental Disaster In Missouri That Nobody Is Talking About

January 4, 2016

Tyler Durden's picture


Since we first highlighted the potential for a “catastrophic event” in Missouri three months ago, there has been little mainstream media coverage. However, as Claire Bernish via notes, residents near the smoldering fill have expressed increasing frustration with the quarreling agencies offering few answers for an increasing number of health issues, like asthma. For now, it’s startlingly apparent no one knows exactly what’s happening with the West Lake and Bridgeton Landfills – though the smoldering below the surface doesn’t cease and floodwaters continue to rise.

What happens when radioactive byproduct from the Manhattan Project comes into contact with an “underground fire” at a landfill? Surprisingly, no one actually knows for sure; but residents of Bridgeton, Missouri, near the West Lake and Bridgeton Landfills — just northwest of the St. Louis International Airport — may find out sooner than they’d like.


And that conundrum isn’t the only issue for the area. Contradicting reports from both the government and the landfill’s responsible parties, radioactive contamination is actively leaching into the surrounding populated area from the West Lake site — and likely has been for the past 42 years.


In order to grasp this startling confluence of circumstances, it’s important to understand the history of these sites. Pertinent information either hasn’t been forthcoming or is muddied by disputes among the various government agencies and companies that should be held accountable for keeping area residents safe.

*  *  *

West Lake Landfill was placed on the National Priorities List in 1990, giving the Environmental Protection Agency regulatory authority through its designation as a Superfund site. However, the area wasn’t a planned radioactive waste storage site. Uranium processing residue leftover from the World War II-era Manhattan Project was originally dumped there, illegally, by a contractor for former uranium processing company and General Atomics affiliate, Cotter Corporation in 1973.

Cotter, Republic Services subsidiaries Bridgeton Landfill LLC and Rock Road Industries LLC, as well as the U.S. Department of Energy are “potentially responsible parties” for West Lake under Superfund guidelines. Power company Exelon Corporation, which owned Cotter from 1974 until 2000, “agreed to retain certain financial obligations relating to environmental claims arising from past Cotter actions, including those at West Lake,” reported St. Louis Public Radio journalist, Véronique LaCapra, who has extensively covered this mess. Bridgeton Landfill falls under the regulatory control of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and is owned and managed by Republic Services subsidiary, Bridgeton Landfill LLC.

Unfortunately, though at least 100,000 tons of nuclear weapons-related residue made their way to West Lake, the exact physical boundaries marking the location of this radioactive waste remain unknown to this day. In fact, because of the ongoing subsurface “fire” at the Bridgeton Landfill, the EPA began conducting tests, which in March 2014detected the presence of radioactive material further south than it expected — 100 feet inside the bounds of the Bridgeton fill. According to Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., Robert Alvarez, in a 2013 report investigating the West Lake site:

“Of significance is the fact that the largest estimated amount of thorium-230, a long-lived, highly radiotoxic element is present at West Lake — more than any other U.S. weapons storage or disposal site. Soil concentrations of radium-226 and thorium-230 are substantially greater than mill tailing waste. The waste residues from the Mallinckrodt [Chemical Works uranium processing] site were found to contain the largest concentration of thorium-230 from any single source in the United States and possibly the world. Thorium-230 concentrations were found to be some 25,000 times greater than its natural isotopic abundance. […]


“Given these circumstances, the West Lake Landfill would violate all federal legal requirements, established over 30 years ago, for licensing of a radioactive waste disposal site.”

Though the EPA promised results of testing to determine the physical extent of the makeshift nuclear disposal site would be reported by November or December, according to its site, those determinations won’t be available until early spring 2016. In the interim, a small brush fire near West Lake on October 24 prompted the EPA to order the responsible parties to implement a specific prevention work plan on December 9, due to concerns radiologically impacted material (RIM) — present in surrounding trees and vegetation — could catch fire and thus migrate from the area. In the Endangerment Determination section of the report, the EPA stated:

“The actual release or threatened release of hazardous substances at and from the Site, if not addressed by implementing the [specified steps] in this Action Memorandum, may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health, or welfare, and the environment.”

Later that month, torrential rains brought what is now being described as ongoing historic flooding to the area — and with it, yet another set of problems and controversy to West Lake Landfill and the people of Bridgeton and nearby Coldwater Creek.

On Dec 30, a peer-reviewed study, published in the Journal for Environmental Radioactivity, disclosed a startling fact about West Lake: radiological contamination has, indeed, seeped outside the already vague boundaries of the site. According to the study:

“Analysis of 287 soil, sediment, and house dust samples collected in a 200 km2 [77.2 mi2] zone in northern St. Louis County, Missouri, establish that offsite migration of radiological contaminants from Manhattan Project-era uranium processing wastes has occurred in this populated area.

In fact, nearly half the samples were found to have concentrations of Lead-210 above the acceptable limits established by the U.S. Department of Energy in managing the uranium plant in Fernald, Ohio, which stored the same Manhattan Project-era wastes. The samples “are consistent with water and radon gas releases” from landfill sites employed for storage of such legacy uranium. Alvarez, who wrote the previously-mentioned report in 2013 and who co-authored this study, stated in an interview Tuesday,

“The stuff we’re talking about at West Lake is hotter than what you would find in a typical uranium mill tailings operation.”

As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has previously explained, West Lake Landfill emits radon gas because of the radium, thorium, uranium, and other radioactive substances in the decay series. This radon gas decays into Lead-210, a solid particulate — which is the substance the study investigated — once it drifts from the site. Because the Lead-210 detected in the samples “showed distinctive secular disequilibrium among uranium and its progeny indicative of uranium ore processing wastes” — in other words, distinguishable from naturally-occurring uranium — “this is strong evidence that the Lead-210 originated by decay of short-lived, fugitive radon gas that escaped the landfill.”

As journalist Byron DeLear noted in the Examiner, “It’s important to recognize that the radon daughters, Lead-210, Polonium, Bismuth, etc., are what makes radon exposure the second leading cause of lung cancer.

Earlier this week, as rain inundated the area, several stills and videos uploaded to the West Lake Landfill Facebook page evidenced spontaneous, active runoff waterfalls flowing directly from areas designated radioactive, collecting in pools, traveling in drainage ditches to streams and creeks — and ultimately, pouring into the now epically-flooded Missouri River. “How could anyone make the argument that RIM is not leaving that site?” State Rep. Bill Otto asked rhetorically after viewing the footage. But EPA spokesperson, Angela Brees, did exactly that, saying — despite strikingly plain evidence to the contrary — the runoff rainwater “came from within the Bridgeton Landfill.”

There is, of course, yet another aspect to this radioactive tangle: the ongoing subsurface fire at Bridgeton Landfill, West Lake’s all-too-immediate neighbor.


Technically, what is occurring isn’t a typical fire with thick, black smoke and flames; rather, “it is a self-sustaining, high-temperature reaction that consumes waste underground, producing rapid ‘settlement’ of the landfill’s surface.”

Bridgeton Landfill LLC alerted MDNR on Dec. 23, 2010, that it discovered high levels of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, low levels of methane, as well as elevated temperatures from several gas extraction wells in the area of the fill known as the south quarry — all indicators of a chemical reaction known as a “subsurface smoldering event” or“underground fire.”

Todd Thalhammer, a landfill fire consultant with the state of Missouri, explained there are several characteristics to determine the presence of an ongoing subsurface fire, including underground temperatures in excess of 170°F and substantial settlement of the land in a short time period. At Bridgeton, an event Thalhammer described as both“catastrophic” and “preventable,”  temperatures have been recorded over 300°F, and Republic Services stated the hottest area of the fire is settling at a rate of two to three feet per month. Though it would be impossible to determine the exact cause of this fire, often, such events occur if oxygen manages to permeate below the surface should underground gases be vented too rapidly.

Residents in Bridgeton and nearby Coldwater Creek noticed unusually strong fumes from the fill beginning in early spring 2012, for which MDNR began more frequent monitoring. Though unsafe levels of certain compounds are occasionally indicated, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) recommends “that during periods of objectionable odor, sensitive individuals should stay indoors as much as possible …”


Of greater urgency for many, partly due to a number of unknowns, concerns the increasing likelihood the subsurface fire will reach and ignite the nuclear weapons-waste material.

As of May 2013, Republic estimated the fire to be only 1,200 feet from the radioactive waste, but this contradicted Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s determination the same month that the distance measured just 1,000 feet. Of course, until the bounds of the radioactive waste are thoroughly mapped, it’s impossible to determine an accurate distance — but, as mentioned above, the EPA found evidence that waste extended 100 feet into the landfill, which would make that distance a mere 900 feet.

In September, Koster released nine reports about the West Lake and Bridgeton maelstrom. In one of those reports, landfill fire expert Tony Sperling explained the subsurface fire had “unequivocally” gone beyond two gas interceptor wells designed to halt its progress, and with “the reaction moving closer to the North Quarry there exists only a very limited window to take further action to prevent [the underground fire] from once again escalating out of control and causing additional hardship on the community of Bridgeton.”

Sperling inexplicably backed down from the emphatic statement in a deposition in October, but his original assertion certainly raised the level of concern. Republic continues to contest claims the fire isn’t contained within the south quarry, and says temperatures have stabilized in the so-called ‘neck’ area running between the landfill and the nuclear waste fill.

All of this depends on the rate at which the underground reaction is advancing, which, unsurprisingly, is also an open question.


In June 2013, the MDNR commissioned a report that found the fire had slowed its advancement from a rate of three feet per day to around one to two feet per day. Then, in March 2014, a spokesperson for Republic said the rate had slowed to a mere six inches per month, though MDNR did not corroborate, except to agree — based on the company’s temperature evaluation along with physical observations by Bridgeton Landfill — the subsurface fire had “slowed substantially.”

However, Sperling’s report last month claimed drastically accelerated figures, stating the fire had spread north into the neck area of the site, while the reaction in the south quarry sped along at around 150 to 300 feet per month, or five to ten feet per day. If the smoldering reaction were to advance into the north quarry at a similar rate, “high temperatures from the reaction could conceivably reach [the radioactive waste area] in 3 to 6 months.” Sperling’s report came out in September.

The EPA disputes all the findings in Koster’s reports, saying the agency “completely disagrees” and hasn’t found evidence to support claims the fire is nearing the radioactive fill at all.

In order to better understand what would happen should the subsurface fire actually reach the radioactive waste, in 2014, Kansas City Region 7 EPA asked officials from the EPA in Cincinnati to review a report prepared by contractor Engineering Management Support, Inc. In March of that year, the Cincinnati EPA published its analysis, which agreed heat from the reaction would not make the waste more or less radioactive, nor would it explode on its own; however, due to possible unknown substances mixed with the radiological materials, the potential for explosion does exist.

Second, in 2008, the EPA released its Record of Decision, which proposed a “cap” of clay, rock, and soil to constrain the weapons-waste to the West Lake site. Though capping hasn’t begun, it now appears such a cap would be adversely affected by heat generated from the subsurface reaction — thus cracking and releasing radon gas, steam, and radioactive dust.

Further, the constant heat generation could increase pressure below the surface under the cap and force the release of radon gas — which, if only inspected once a year, could avoid detection for months. Also, should the fire continue consuming radioactive waste long-term, area residents would be exposed to unsafe levels of radon gas. Further still, liquid building up below the surface could evacuate radon gas and other radioactive contaminants into groundwater supply.


Residents near the smoldering fill have expressed increasing frustration with the quarreling agencies offering few answers for an increasing number of health issues, like asthma. Meanwhile, a group of residents in Coldwater Creek, nearer the West Lake site, filed a class action lawsuit against Mallinckrodt, the original handler of the nuclear waste material, claiming there have been an astonishing 2,700 cancer cases clustered around the creek — including a number of rare cases of appendix cancer. Even fullytesting the creek for radioactive materials will take years to complete.

By its very nature, this incredibly complex and interwoven morass makes solutions difficult and laboriously slow in coming. Theoretical fixes that could apply to, say, containing radioactive materials to the West Lake site, might have negative consequences should the long-smoldering subsurface reaction come into play. Inaction in containing the subsurface fire, in the hope of definitively locating bounds of radioactive waste, have meant further advancement of that very fire in the meantime. With so many unknowns, St. Louis County issued an emergency plan in 2014 “to save lives in the event of a catastrophic event at the West Lake Landfill” — which, though well-intentioned, did nothing to calm nervous residents in the area.

For now, it’s startlingly apparent no one knows exactly what’s happening with the West Lake and Bridgeton Landfills — though the smoldering below the surface doesn’t cease and floodwaters continue to rise.


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Environmental groups, attorneys general again sue to block nuclear plant relicensing

October 30, 2014

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12 hours ago • By Jacob Barker 314-340-82913

A view of the cooling tower (left) and the reactor building (right) at Ameren Missouri’s nuclear plant on Friday, July 11, 2014, in Callaway County. Photo by Huy Mach,
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Just a week after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began relicensing nuclear power plants, environmental groups and several states are again suing to stop it.
The latest litigation affects several utilities, including Ameren Missouri, that have been waiting for a decision from the federal regulatory agency.

The NRC had to suspend relicensing activities two years ago after political wrangling torpedoed a national repository in the Nevada desert. A federal appeals court, at the time, directed the NRC to consider the environmental impact of storing spent fuel without a national repository.

In response to the court ruling two years ago, the NRC finalized rules last month that found nuclear waste could be stored indefinitely above ground in dry casks that are replaced every 100 years. Spent nuclear fuel now is usually stored in cooling pools near reactors.

Ameren Missouri, which is seeking a 20-year extension of the license for its Callaway plant in mid-Missouri, proposes to build a dry-cask storage facility and begin moving spent fuel rods to the new site next year. The Callaway plant opened in 1984 and can operate with its current license through 2024.

Last week, the NRC resumed issuing licenses, granting renewal to a plant near Philadelphia. In all, it has granted 74 renewals out of 100 operating nuclear reactors in the country, according to the Energy Information Administration. Ameren hopes to win approval for its license extension by the end of the year.

But the states of New York, Connecticut and Vermont are challenging the NRC’s storage rules in a suit filed Monday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The environmental groups filed a similar lawsuit Wednesday.

Joining the environmentalists’ lawsuit this time is the St. Louis-based Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

“It’s irresponsible for the NRC to permit the creation of new, high-level nuclear wastes without a plan for their ultimate safe storage and disposal,” the coalition’s Ed Smith said in a statement Wednesday.

Jacob Barker is a business reporter at the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @jacobbarker and the Business section @postdispatchbiz.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Energy, Nuclear Technology, Nuclear Energy In The United States, Environment, Ameren Missouri, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Callaway Nuclear Generating Station, Dry Cask Storage, Ameren, Callaway Plant, St. Louis-based Missouri Coalition For The Environment, Ed Smith
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More Nuclear Power is NOT the Answer to the Climate Crisis

September 14, 2014

Petition published by Tom Hayden on Sep 04, 2014
147 Signatures 

Target: Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network
Region: GLOBAL

Petition Background (Preamble):

We believe that expanding the role of nuclear power may threaten the planet as surely as the global warming you seek to mitigate.

Fukushima alone demonstrates the risks of nuclear meltdowns even in a society based on science and advanced technology. The one hundreds plants in our country are terrorist targets.

There are no solutions in sight to nuclear waste disposal. The timelines for bringing new nuclear plants online exceed the UN’s call for rapid decarbonization. The estimated costs are staggering.


We urge you to revise the recommendations of the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network to remove its advocacy of nuclear fission as a “solution” to the climate crisis. The accelerated development of nuclear power plants would only increase the course we are on to planetary catastrophe.

We urge you to develop an analytic model that includes the decommissioning of current nuclear plants as part of a transition to a future based on conservation, efficiency and renewable energy.

The More Nuclear Power is NOT the Answer to the Climate Crisispetition to Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network was written by Tom Hayden and is in the category Environment at GoPetition. Contact author here. Petition tags: , , , , , , ,

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Great Lakes Communities Struggle Against Proposed Nuclear Waste Facility

June 27, 2014
Ecowatch/News Report
Published: Friday 27 June 2014
The fate of the proposed nuclear waste facility in Kincardine, Ontario is left in the hands of democracy. A little scary, don’t you think?

Article image



For the past 15 years, Ontario Power Generation—one of the largest producers of electricity in North America—has been working to obtain approval from the Canadian government to build an underground repository near the Great Lakes to store its nuclear waste.

As the approval process for the Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) nears an end, some concerned citizens have started a petition asking lawmakers in Canada, as well as the U.S., to block the approval of the proposed nuclear waste repository near the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant site in Kincardine, Ontario.

Almost 61,000 people have signed the petition so far, including Dr. David Suzuki, a famous Canadian environmentalist.

resolution dots

Much of the concern is focused on the proposed repository’s location—just about a half mile from the shores of Lake Huron. Groups such as Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump argue that if radioactive nuclear waste leaked into the water, the 40 million Canadians and Americans who depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, would find themselves without access to a source of clean freshwater.

Though some are troubled by the idea of underground nuclear waste repositories, Emily Hammond, a law professor at The George Washington University Law School and scholar at theCenter for Progressive Reform, says the scientific community has come to the consensus that it’s actually the best way to dispose of radioactive material.

Hammond recognizes the concerns regarding the proposed facility—and of nuclear power or waste, in general—but, she said, “Nuclear waste repositories are some of the safest places you could put anything on Earth,” as the facilities are “over designed.”

She also says that any company building a repository should be transparent and allow scientists and concerned citizens to conduct studies and voice concerns.

Meanwhile, although many activists opposed to the site have expressed their concerns in recent years, numerous scientific studies conducted on the proposed site of the DGR by scientists around the globe have all come to the same conclusion: the site is a safe location for nuclear waste disposal.

Safe Space?

Arguments that the site is safe stem from its location in a seismically stable region. Scientists say the rock formations have hardly moved during the last 450 million years and don’t appear to indicate any future movement.

However, not all scientists agree that a glance at a rock formation can clearly determine how safe it may be to store nuclear waste in the area. For instance, William Fyfe, a retired University of Western Ontario professor who worked as an international consultant on nuclear waste before he passed away last fall, voiced his concerns about the project due to the site’s close proximity to water.

“It is universally acknowledged that nuclear waste must be kept away from water circulating through the environment of living things,” the late Fyfe said, “since water is seen as the main vehicle for eventual dissolution and dissemination of radiotoxic pollutants.”

Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee has also expressed concerns about the location of the proposed DGR, especially due to recent issues at facilities that were supposed to be spill-proof—such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

“These nuclear waste storage sites, although often said to be impenetrable, are not perfect, as this radiation leak shows,” Kildee said in February, after a broken drum at the WIPP facility reportedly caused a leak. “I continue to have great concerns with locating a similar nuclear waste site less than a mile from Lake Huron in Ontario.”

“Storing nuclear waste so dangerously close to the Great Lakes is just too much of a risk to take,” Kildee continued. “Michigan and our shared water basin with Canada would be forever changed if a nuclear radiation leak were to happen. Such contamination would also have a drastic effect on the livelihood and well-being of both Michiganders and Canadians.”

Concerns regarding contaminated water have prompted more than 50 cities and towns in Ontario and in the U.S. states bordering the Great Lakes to pass resolutions opposing the DGR.

Beverly Fernandez, spokesperson for Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, an opposition group formed last year, says the project “defies common sense.”

“Would you bury poison beside your well?” she asked rhetorically.


Need for a Nuclear Repository

Plans for the underground repository first began in 2001, when officials from the small town of Kincardine in Ontario, Canada, approached officials at OPG in search of a more permanent storage solution for the nuclear waste materials the Ontario-government owned company has been kept in above-ground containers for the past 40 years or so.

Ontario relies heavily on nuclear power, which is viewed as a clean power source because it doesn’t produce smog or contribute to climate change. About 50 percent of Ontario’s electricity is currently generated by nuclear power plants, making the province the largest nuclear power jurisdiction in North America.

“We have had nuclear power since the late 1960s,” said Neal Kelly, director of media, issues and information management for OPG.

The major benefit to nuclear power, Kelly says, is that it generates large amounts of relatively cheap electricity around the clock, which is used to power homes, businesses, hospitals and more.

But the creation of nuclear energy also creates a need to dispose of the resulting nuclear waste. There are three types of nuclear waste streams produced by nuclear power plants: low-, medium- and high-level wastes. High-level wastes—essentially the fuel bundles in the reactors—would not be put into the DGR, as Kelly says those only disposed at the very nuclear power plants where they were produced and used.

The other two types of radioactive waste materials would be buried in the proposed DGR site, though. The vast majority would be low-level waste —items that are slightly contaminated by nuclear waste, such as gloves, coveralls and mops. For the past 40 years, these low-level materials were moved to Kincardine, where they were incinerated.

Kelly says that OPG will continue to incinerate these items and bury the ash in the depository. Although the resulting ash is radioactive, the material being burned contains such a small amount of radiation that Kelly says the employees who handle it wear minimal protective gear—just coveralls and gloves.

Medium-level waste that would be buried in the DGR includes items like filters and resins that cannot be incinerated because they were located closer to the reactor core. Just like the low-level radioactive items, the medium-level items have been disposed of safely in the area for 40 years, Kelly says.

Scientific Analysis

As both sides argue why the DGR should or should not be built on the shores of Lake Huron, a three-person environmental panel of experts in the fields of geology, science and mining, has been appointed by the Canadian Ministry of the Environment to thoroughly research the geologic structure of the land and hear comments and concerns from members of the public.

Before OPG applied for approval to build the facility near Lake Huron, Kelly says, the company researched the types of facilities used to store nuclear waste around the world and shared the best practices with officials from Kincardine and surrounding municipalities.

The creation of a nuclear waste storage facility in deep rock was the option the municipalities liked best, Kelly says, so OPG moved forward with the project.

Geologists were also called in to analyze the proposed site, which is where a lot of the waste is currently stored above ground. They spent about four years assessing the underground geological formations, studying the current environmental conditions and forecasting what might happen in the future.

Based on an examination of a piece of rock removed from more than three miles underground, geologists and scientists reported that the rock structure was around 450 million years old and hasn’t shifted much over the long course of its existence. Because of this, the site was deemed an appropriate and safe place to build the repository.

“We were very lucky with the geology of the site,” Kelly said.

OPG had the initial findings peer-reviewed by other scientists, he continued, and has since shared more than 12,000 pages of studies proving the safety of the rock formation to the environmental review panel and the public.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Quality in Michigan have also reviewed the findings. Both bodies concluded that storing the nuclear waste in the rock about 2,230 feet below the surface would not harm the environment.

Despite a plethora of scientists coming to the same conclusion, Allison Macfarlane, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has argued that geology has not yet advanced to the point in which predictions on future movement can be made based on a study of a rock formation.

Even with the use of computer software that can make predictions, Macfarlane has said that geologists are not able to account for processes or features they may be unaware of. For example, after studying a rock formation, government and industry scientists reported the chance of off-site migration occurring at a nuclear waste facility in Kentucky was “essentially nonexistent.” But the plutonium, which scientists believed would travel a half of an inch on-site over a 24,000 year period, actually moved two miles off-site in less than 10 years.

Dr. Frank Greening, a retired OPG chemist, worked in the nuclear industry for more than 30 years. He also expressed concerns about the site in a report, in which he claims OPG has “severely underestimated” the radioactivity of the materials that will be put into the repository, “sometimes by factors of more than 100.”


Public Opinion

Although thousands of Americans and Canadians are opposed to the DGR, thousands of others support the plan. Hammond says she must admit that even as an environmentalist, OPG appears to be doing everything properly by following the laws and being completely transparent throughout the democratic process.

Fernandez, of Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, disagrees that it has been a democratic process. She says OPG has paid around $35.7 million to Kincardine and four other shoreline communities located near the proposed DGR site, claiming that these funds are dispersed with the understanding that officials must support any effort to approve the repository or they’ll lose the contributions.

OPG has not denied that it has donated money to local municipalities, which are home to 10,000 OPG employees, and it has been transparent about the donations. While it may be surprising that a company would willingly disclose financial contributions, according to Hammond, these types of donations are legal as long as they are authorized by the government.

Known as “benefits packages,” Hammond says companies around the world—including those in the U.S.—often donate sums of money to cities where a project is anticipated in order to persuade people to support it. In the case of a nuclear structure, these funds are also meant to ensure that hospitals are equipped to handle the chemicals and relevant vocational courses are offered in the area that would enable local workforce participation.

But Fernandez remains unconvinced that the process is as democratic as OPG claims. She says the company failed to consult the 40 million people who would find themselves without access to clean drinking water if the DGR leaked or ask them if they approved of the project.

She also says OPG is seeking approval from a town of around 14,000 people—many of whom are OPG employees—for a decision that has implications for millions.

Fernandez suggests the company find another location to store the nuclear waste, such as an area that is not near the Great Lakes or as highly populated, or it should continue storing the material in bomb-proof, above-ground containers.

OPG’s Kelly acknowledges the opposition to the project, but says most people change their minds once they learn about all of the research that has gone into the DGR. While OPG seems to be working hard to convince the public that the DGR is the right way to go, he says the company will not proceed without support from the First Nations groups that live in the area.

It should become clearer how indigenous populations and members of the public feel about the project in September, when four weeks of public hearings commence for what is likely the last time before the review panel is expected to make their decision sometime in early 2015.

How the Canadian government will eventually decide is anyone’s guess at this point, but as environmental lawyers like Hammond note, this has been a remarkably aboveboard, democratic process—a feat in and of itself.

Long Road to Approval

Though Fernandez and other opponents push members of the public in both countries to block approval for the project, the petition to stop the DGR from being built is arguably a bit premature, as the project has not yet been approved.

Even if the panel does side with OPG, Kelly says the company has only applied for a license to construct the facility. OPG is currently essentially seeking approval to construct a mine to build the underground storage facility.

If the project is approved, Kelly says it would take five to seven years to build the DGR. Upon its completion, OPG would have to undergo another public process in order to obtain an operation license so the company could lawfully transport and store the nuclear waste in the DGR.

OPG expects the DGR to hold about 52,834,470 gallons of nuclear waste—the equivalent of about 35 years worth of nuclear waste. Once the DGR is full, the OPG would submit to another public process in which the company would seek a decommissioning license, which would allow OPG to fill about 2,230 feet of the mine shaft with cement and cap it at the top.

The company would be responsible for monitoring the facility for a period of time to ensure that radioactive material was not leaking, but it would eventually ask to abandon all responsibility for the site. This could occur about 300 years after the DGR had been closed, even though the chemicals remain radioactive for around 100,000 years.

Kelly says he and others at OPG are not concerned about the chemicals getting into the Great Lakes because not only have the rocks not moved in 450 million years, but there are multiple natural barriers—such as shale—that would help insulate the materials and prevent them from leaking into Lake Huron.

When asked about the disaster at the WIPP facility in New Mexico, Kelly explained that the proposed facility in Kincardine is different than the WIPP facility and OPG is studying what happened at WIPP and incorporating lessons learned into their plans to build the repository.



Katie Rucke is a MintPress staff writer and investigative report specializing in the war on drugs, criminal justice, marijuana legislation, education and watchdog investigations as well as whistle-blowers. Her investigations related to the coverage of the 2010 Toyota recall scandal, and coverage of the trials of Anonymous hacker and proclaimed activist Jeremy Hammond as well as Bradley Manning have received international acclaim. Rucke has been recommended by the Wikileaks organization as a trusted journalist in 2013. Rucke has also written pieces for Yahoo! and various community magazines. Follow Katie on Twitter: @katierucke

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Only US Nuclear Weapons Waste Storage Site Still Closed and Hot

April 23, 2014

More than two months after plutonium and americium leaked from the supposedly leak-proof underground nuclear weapons waste storage facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) still does not know what caused the leak. (photo: AP)
More than two months after plutonium and americium leaked from the supposedly leak-proof underground nuclear weapons waste storage facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) still does not know what caused the leak. (photo: AP)

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

22 April 14


obody’s ever tried to fix an underground radiation accident before

More than two months after Plutonium and Americium leaked from the supposedly leak-proof underground nuclear weapons waste storage facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) still does not know what caused the leak almost half a mile underground, but on April 17, an exploration crew found increasing radiation levels before retreating to safety. DOE plans to send more teams, or robots, into the storage area to find the source of the radioactive contamination.

The nuclear weapons waste facility, carved into an underground salt deposit, is known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP. It is the only repository for U.S. nuclear weapons waste and has been closed since undetermined amounts of Plutonium and Americium leakedinto the atmosphere on February 14, 2014. This was the first known radioactive leak from WIPP, which its planners said would contain the nuclear weapons waste for 10,000 years without leaking.

As has been true at WIPP for months now, reliable, detailed information has been scarce. U.S. officials didn’t even inform the public that there had been a leak until four days after the event. Currently, the government is not saying what levels of radiation their teams have encountered during four trips into the storage area 2,130 feet underground. AnAssociated Press report carried this typically opaque bit of public information on April 17: “Tammy Reynolds, the U.S. Department of Energy’s deputy recovery manager, told a community meeting in Carlsbad that more trips need to be made into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to further investigate the accident, but officials hope to have more information next week.”

Underground storage area equals almost one square mile

According to the Department of Energy, there are seven sections or “panels” in the salt mine where the nuclear weapons waste is stored. Five of these sections have been sealed and are supposed to remain sealed for at least 10,000 years. Panel 6 is reportedly full, but not yet sealed, with no explanation for that delay. Panel 7 is an active storage area that has not been filled, and is the apparent location of radioactivity from whatever sort of accident has taken place.

“It doesn’t seem to us that the contamination came from Panel 6, that the source came from Panel 7,” Tammy Reynolds said. She also said: “The more they went into panel 7, the more it [radiation] started becoming more widespread…. They were picking up contamination more frequent.”

Three weeks earlier, the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) reported the same information more precisely, on March 28: “Apparently, one or more of the 258 contact-handled (CH) waste containers underground in Room 7 and Panel 7 released radioactive and toxic chemicals.” This report calculates that the distance from the presumed point of release to the point of detection above ground is a mile and a half or more and that the radioactive release lasted more than 15 hours, based on DOE documents.

In his sixth open letter of reassurance to area residents, the Energy Department field manager offered no more specific information than any other public information officer. Jose Franco’s April 18 letter said of the investigation underground: “As workers traveled toward the waste disposal area, they did not detect airborne contamination. This confirms our ventilation system is working as designed. Once the location and cause of the event are identified, we can focus on any necessary cleanup activities in the area and work towards returning WIPP to full waste disposal operations.”

Government says irradiated workers are just fine

Officially, the radioactive release of February 14 contaminated 21 WIPP workers. These workers, who are employed by the government contractor that manages WIPP, ingested small amounts of Plutonium or Americium, either of which will remain a threat to the workers’ health for a long time (Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years; Americium 242 has a half-life of 141 years).

Officially, the workers’ “exposure levels were extremely low, and the employees are unlikely to experience any health effects as a result.” Unlikely, perhaps, but with highly radioactive alpha radiation emitters lodged in their bodies, their chance of serious health issues has increased, and will not likely decrease. The workers were all working above ground when they were exposed. Reportedly there were no workers underground at the time of the accident.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant currently has more than 5,000 cubic feet of nuclear weapons waste in 41 packages that are not isolated. They are stored above ground in a parking area unit and a waste handling building. This waste arrived prior to the accidents at WIPP and the accidents prevented the waste from being moved underground.

Other waste shipments headed for WIPP have been diverted to a waste control facility in Andrews, Texas, where they are stored above ground. Under the current agreement with the Energy Department, that facility is allowed to store the waste for a year, with extensions for more years possible.

In its most recent “WIPP Radiation Release” update on April 10, the Southwest Research and Information Center provides a list of some of the things that remain unknown about radiation releases at WIPP since February 14:

    • What caused the release.
    • What was the nature of the release that allowed some contaminants to travel more than a mile and a half.
    • What contaminants were released into the environment before the HEPA filtration system was triggered.
    • What contaminants in what amounts have been captured by the HEPA filters.
    • Whether the amount of the release and the location of all of the containments can be determined.
    • When radiation levels in the WIPP underground air will return to pre-release levels.
    • The amounts of contamination in the WIPP underground.
    • What underground decontamination will be done.
    • What amount of exposure to radiation and toxic chemicals workers going underground will receive or have received.
    • What amount of exposure that workers on the surface have received or will receive.
    • What surface decontamination will be done.
  • What changes in the WIPP operation, monitoring, and safety culture will be implemented.

The government, on the other hand. continues to advise anyone who will listen that “print and electronic media and ‘watchdog groups’ have made this nuclear radiation molehill into a mountain. One millirem – mrem – is a radiation dose that is approximately equivalent to what one would receive from eating 100 bananas (not necessary to eat them all at once).”

In other words, even if you’re a heavy banana-eater: Don’t worry, be happy.

[NOTE: a detailed account of government response to the accidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, titled “US Nuclear Waste Dirty-Bombs New Mexico With Plutonium,” is available here.]

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.


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Essential personnel on site at WIPP

March 18, 2014

Updated: 03/16/2014 8:27 PM | Created: 03/16/2014 7:43 PM
By: Jeffery Gordon,

KOB Eyewitness News 4 has learned new information on the troubled Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad.

Only essential personnel are on site.

They have been training on new safety procedure for the last week and a half.

WIPP was shut down last month when a radiation leak was discovered.

A fire also broke out at the site in early February in an underground mine.

No one has entered the affected mine.

WIPP officials tell KOB that they may be sending the first crews down in the next couple of days.

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‘A Huge Amount of Radiation’ as Fukushima Crisis Worsens Fukushima crisis only continues to worsen as a new and separate leak of ‘highly radioactive water’ found

August 21, 2013

Published on Tuesday, August 20, 2013 by Common Dreams

– Jon Queally, staff writer

Multitude of problems: Tanks (foreground) containing radioactive water and reactor buildings (background) at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant are photographed in February. (KYODO)Contaminate. Store. Leak. Repeat.

That is the dangerous water cycle now taking place in Japan as huge amounts of water are being used to cool the damaged reactors and fuel rods remaining at the Fukushima plant with no safe way to contain, dispose, or deal with the thousands of tons of growing waste.

And the catastrophe only continues to worsen as reports from Japan on Tuesday indicate that a new and separate leak of “highly radioactive water” is now occuring from a storage tank with officials saying the undetected leak may have be allowing tons of contaminated water to seap into the ground every day for a month, or longer.

The new leak is separate from the ones reported in recent weeks, but may foretell a whole new series of worry, according to experts.

The water from the ongoing and latest leak, according to Reuters, “is so contaminated that a person standing 50 centimeters (1.6 feet) away would, within an hour, receive a radiation dose five times the average annual global limit for nuclear workers.”

As the Japan Times reports:

At 9:50 a.m. Monday, Tepco workers on patrol found a pool of at least 120 liters of highly contaminated water thought to have escaped from concrete barrier’s drain valves. The valves had been opened to drain rainwater.

The radiation level measured around 50 cm above the toxic water stood at about 100 millisieverts per hour, Tepco said.

Exposure to 100 millisieverts increases the incidence of death by cancer by 0.5 percent, according to the International Commission on Radiological Protection. It is also the legal upper limit for a nuclear worker over five years.

On Tuesday, Tepco said the water level in tank No. 5 had dropped by 3 meters, meaning about 300 tons of contaminated water had been lost. From Monday to Tuesday, about 10 tons were lost, indicating this amount may have leaked every day over the past 30 days, a senior Tepco official told The Japan Times.

“So far, we had four similar (tank) leakage cases. The problem this time is that we didn’t detect it for as long as 30 days,” the official said.

“That is a huge amount of radiation. The situation is getting worse,” Michiaki Furukawa, professor emeritus at Nagoya University and a nuclear chemist, told Reuters.

And Reuters adds:

Massive amounts of radioactive fluids are accumulating at the Fukushima plant as Tepco floods reactor cores via a jerry-rigged system to keep melted uranium fuel rods cool and stable.

The water in the improvised cooling system then flows into basements and trenches that have been leaking since the disaster.

Highly contaminated excess water is pumped out and stored in steel tanks on elevated ground away from the reactors, which lie adjacent to the coast. About 400 tons of radioactive water per day has been pooling and kept in storage at Fukushima.

In order to keep up with the pace of the contaminated water flow, Tepco has mostly relied on tanks that are bolted together with plastic sealing around the joints. Those tanks are less robust — but quicker to assemble — than the welded tanks that the utility has recently started installing.


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Yucca Mountain Waste Site: Court Orders Nuclear Agency Back to Work

August 15, 2013

Nuclear reactors. (photo: Fast Company)
Nuclear reactors. (photo: Fast Company)

go to original article

By Pete Spotts, Christian Science Monitor

14 August 13


 federal appeals court has ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume its review of a Department of Energy license application to operate the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in Nevada, designated by Congress as the repository for highly radioactive spent fuel.

A three-judge panel of the US District Court of Appeals in Washington, ruling 2 to 1, criticized the NRC for halting work on the Energy Department’s application, saying the agency “is simply defying a law enacted by Congress, and the Commission is doing so without any legal basis.”

In its 29-page decision, the court said it wasn’t interested in the nuclear-waste policy question, but saw the case as a revolving around the latitude the executive branch should have in “disregarding federal statues,” an issue “with serious implications for our constitutional structure.”

The ruling’s impact on the future of Yucca Mountain is unclear.

“This case is not so much about Yucca Mountain as it is about due process,” said Philip Jones, president of the National Association of State Utility Commissioners (NASUC), in a prepared statement.

“Existing law requires the NRC to determine whether the facility and location is safe for storing spent-nuclear fuel,” he added. “Even if it does, the fate of Yucca Mountain remains uncertain.”

The issue has a long, contentious history – from the early days of the site selection process through President George W. Bush’s decision in 2002 to sign a joint resolution of Congress picking Yucca Mountain as the location for storing high-level radioactive waste.

The tide turned with President Obama’s election.

After Mr. Obama took office in 2009, he slashed funds for the program and appointed a commission to revisit the issue of storing highly radioactive spent fuel. One of his key allies in Congress has been Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, who has long opposed the project in his home state. Funding prospects for Yucca Mountain, especially in the Democrat-controlled Senate, continue to appear bleak, at best.

But the Energy Department filed its license application for Yucca Mountain in 2008. That started the play clock ticking on a 2011 deadline for completing the review process and giving the application a thumbs up or thumbs down. The three-year time frame was established by Congress under amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.

The act establishes the federal government’s responsibility to site and build a nuclear waste repository. Nuclear utilities were responsible for paying disposal costs. The nuclear industry estimates that utilities, and ultimately rate-payers, have contributed $35 billion to the nuclear waste fund since then, with no return on the investment.

The NRC failed to meet the 2011 deadline and, in essence, shelved any additional work on the application, citing the powerful political opposition to the repository, as well as Congress’s unwillingness to continue funding it. The NRC has about $11 million left in the pot of money Congress appropriated in fiscal 2011 to perform the review.

The NRC’s five commissioners may have concluded that they were caught between a statutory rock and a political and fiscal hard place, but the inability to make a decision within the three-year period was self-imposed, according to Rob Thormeyer, spokesman for the NASUC.

Early in 2010, the Energy Department tried to withdraw its application, without providing any scientific or technical reasons for doing so, Mr. Thormeyer says. The request “was just a couple of pages saying it was no longer viable.”

The NRC’s staff denied the request, citing the DOE’s lack of a technical rationale for pulling the application and the law’s requirement that the NRC complete its review.

But the five-member commission also had to sign off on the staff’s decision to reject the request to withdraw the application. When the issue came up, one commission member bowed out of the decision, citing involvement in the issue prior to serving on the commission, Thormeyer recalls. That left a 2-2 deadlock, delaying additional work on the application.

Pushback from the industry and the looming deadline prompted the chairman to direct the staff to resume work on the application, Thormeyer continues. But that left the staff with one month to complete its work after more than a year of delay, guaranteeing the agency would blow its deadline. With little money and, in essence, no time left to complete the job, the staff opted to suspend consideration of the application – and started to pack up documents, ship them off to storage sites, dismantle the computer network set up to do the work, and transfer the staff working on the application to other projects.

The petition seeking the court order was filed on behalf of the states of Washington and South Carolina, as well as Aiken County, S.C., and state public-utility officials. But this is not the first time the NRC has been taken to court on the issue.

In 2011, another panel of Court of Appeals judges noted that if the agency failed to meet the deadline, a writ of mandamus – a court order for government officials to perform their statutory duties – would be in order.

In 2012, the three judges hearing this case considered a similar request for the writ. But the commission argued vehemently that Congress wasn’t interested in moving the licensing process forward. A majority of the judges noted at the time that, given the language of the law and the money still available to the NRC, it would have to order the commission to act, unless Congress changed the law or forbade the agency from spending any more money on the Yucca Mountain licensing process.

Congress did neither, leaving the majority to conclude today that “the commission is simply flouting the law.”

In a dissent, chief judge Merrick Garland noted that a writ of mandamus is a “drastic and extraordinary remedy reserved for really extraordinary causes.” In other cases where federal agencies have blow statutory deadlines by far larger margins than the NRC has with the DOE’s application, “this court has not hesitated to deny the writ,” he wrote.

In particular, he cited a previous decision in which the court refused to issue a writ “to do a useless thing, even though technically to uphold a legal right.”

The NRC isn’t refusing to approve or disapprove the license, he wrote, but has suspending efforts until more money comes through to finish the job.

Virtually all parties agree that the $11 million left is inadequate to pay for the work that remains to be done on the application. And for the last three years, Congress has been unwilling to appropriate the money to finish the job.

Judge Garland concluded that, with this decision, the court is requiring the NRC to do something truly useless. The writ amounts to an order to spent part of the remaining money “unpacking boxes, and the remainder packing them up again. This exercise will do nothing to safeguard the separation of powers, which my colleagues see as imperiled by the NRC’s conduct.”

NASUC and the Nuclear Energy Institute, which filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the parties seeking the writ, both released statements applauding the court’s action.

The NEI released a statement saying, “Today’s ruling is a clear signal regarding the NRC’s obligation to review the Department of Energy’s license application for a repository at Yucca Mountain and to issue a final decision granting or denying the license…. We encourage Congress to provide appropriate funding in FY2014 and beyond to facilitate completion of the NRC’s independent safety review.”

For its part, the NRC is reviewing the decision before deciding on its next steps in the case, says agency spokesman David McIntyre.

Asked about the court’s decision at a National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Senator Reid said that the ruling “was not unexpected, but it really doesn’t mean much,” according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“With no disrespect to the court, this decision means nothing,” Reid said. “Yucca Mountain is an afterthought.”

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The Lethal Legacy of Nuclear Waste at San Onofre

July 2, 2013

June 27, 2013
5:19 PM

Edison must quickly move spent reactor fuel from pools to dry casks

WASHINGTON – June 27 – The legacy of 44 years of operating the San Onofre reactors is a nuclear waste dump containing one of the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States, says a new study from Friends of the Earth, which warns that the spent fuel on site poses a major radiological hazard in the event of an accident. The report urges Southern California Edison to as soon as possible move hundreds of thousands of spent fuel rods from cooling pools to much safer dry-cask storage.

Nearly 1,100 tons of the highly radioactive spent fuel rods, discharged from the reactor cores, remain in vulnerable water filled cooling pools. The amount of radioactivity in the spent fuel rods now stored in the cooling pools is nearly three times more than is stored in the high-level radioactive waste tanks at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford site in Washington, considered the most contaminated site in the nation.

The report is by Robert Alvarez, former senior advisor to the Secretary at the Department of Energy and an expert on the growing volume of waste piling up at reactors across the nation. It details the vulnerability of cooling pools, which could accidentally drain, leading to the release of millions of curies of radioactivity. The report says Edison should move as quickly as possible to transfer the spent fuel from the cooling pools to dry-cask storage. Dry casks, while not risk-free, reduce the risk of major release of radioactivity into the environment. Most of the fuel in the San Onofre pools could be moved to cask storage within 5-7 years.

“The major risk from the reactors at San Onofre is over, but the radiation hazard from the pool-stored waste is even greater,” said Alvarez. “As we saw at Fukushima, spent fuel in pools that were never designed for such concentrated and prolonged storage is highly vulnerable. Within six hours of losing water in the pools, more radioactive cesium could be released than was released in all nuclear weapons tests. The radiation dose to the thousands living within ten miles of the plant would be in the lethal range.”

Nuclear waste from spent fuel has been generated by all of the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors, with an estimated 70,000 tons currently in vulnerable pools and dry casks. The nuclear industry is currently lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would establish regional storage facilities for spent fuel at Department of Energy sites, such as the Savannah River site in South Carolina, as well as in New Mexico and Idaho. Legislation is expected to be introduced shortly that would attempt to push through such proposals with no opportunity for local public citizen involvement. Friends of the Earth, along with other national and local organizations, is opposed to such legislation as it would not solve the waste problem but would lead to greater risks from nuclear transports and would be the effective dumping of waste on already highly contaminated sites.

“San Onofre is a clear example of what happens when the nuclear industry is allowed to ignore the waste problem,” said Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “The industry has created a highly dangerous situation for tens of millions of people not just in Southern California but across the nation. Proposals to move this waste around the country are an industry-driven scam to create the illusion that they’ve found a solution. There is no risk-free solution, but the best available option is for Edison and the rest of the nuclear industry to move as rapidly as possible to cask storage on the reactor site.”


Friends of the Earth is the U.S. voice of the world’s largest grassroots environmental network, with member groups in 77 countries. Since 1969, Friends of the Earth has fought to create a more healthy, just world.

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