Conversation Heats Up on Nuclear Waste's Future

 Panelists Dr. Gordon Edwards, presenting, and Robert Alvarez (seated)

Panelists Dr. Gordon Edwards, presenting, and Robert Alvarez (seated)

GARRISON, NEW YORK, June 12, 2017—When Nuclear Plants Close: A Regional Forum on Nuclear Waste Storage and Decommissioning convened an impressive array of national experts to prepare local citizens, officials, plant workers, and activists for the future of Indian Points Units 2 and 3, the reactors closest in upstate New York to New York City, which are scheduled to be closed in 2020-21. Unit 1 was permanently shutdown in October 1974.

Overwhelmingly, the experts did not paint a radiant picture, at best allowing that this next wave of decommissioning offers an opportunity to identify the safest reasonable, fully-funded decommissioning plan for Indian Point that can also serve as a model for other reactor communities, and at worst, acknowledging that the process of decommissioning has the potential to ignite issues as egregious as environmental racism, failure of democracy, and failure of morality itself.

“The age of nuclear energy is going away. the age of nuclear waste is just beginning,” began Dr. Gordon Edwards, President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and an internationally recognized nuclear expert. Indeed, Westinghouse Electric Company—a titan in the development of nuclear energy and the makers of the remaining Indian Point pressurized water reactors—filed for bankruptcy protection on March 29 on this year. Mr. Edwards described the phenomenon known as “the reverse midas touch,” in which everything touched in a decommissioning effort eventually turns to nuclear waste:

“As you take it apart, stuff spreads, it mixes, it mingles,” he stated, continuing, "Let’s stop pretending that we have a solution. There is no scientific principle by which the fate of this material can be predicted over millions of years.”

Robert Alvarez, Senior Scholar, Institute for Policy Studies, and former Senior Policy Advisor to the Department of Energy and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment, spoke about the multiple vulnerabilities—including malfunction, natural disaster, and terrorist attack or cyber-attack—of Spent Fuel Pools (SFP), the containers where spent nuclear fuel rods are initially stored for cooling.

Though SFP’s are intended to be used for interim storage, Alvarez stated that spent fuel, one of the most hazardous substances on earth, “will stay in pools longer than we think,” explaining that “it is not clear at this time” whether high burn-up fuel technology—favored because it sustains the longest chain reaction thereby allowing operators to use less of it, and which accounts for about 50% of the fuel in today’s pools—can be transferred from the pools to safer, long-term storage in dry casks. Indian Point has used high burn-up fuel since 2013.

“There is no data on how high burn-up fuel holds up in dry storage,” Alvarez advised, adding that currently we can only “sprinkle small quantities into the casks.”

Michael Dulong of Riverkeeper reminded the audience that Indian Point’s Unit 1, shutdown in 1974, had experienced leaks from its spent fuel pool into the groundwater, potentially contaminating the public drinking water. (In breaking news, Indian Point's Unit 3, was shut down earlier today due to what owner Entergy described as "slight water leakage." ) 

Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear’s Radioactive Waste Specialist, stressed the need for Hardened On-Site Storage (“HOSS”) as close as possible to the point of origin, as a best-in-class measure in the absence of a long-term geological repository such as Yucca Mountain, not only to minimize the risk of potential accidents during transportation, but because, he said, “numerous existing [non-HOSS] dry casks are currently considered defective, even by the NRC.”

All the experts agreed that the NRC itself is trending toward more permissiveness, attempting to reduce their purview from the realm of regulation to one of merely guidance. Kamp warned that such loss of institutional control would eventually prove catastrophic, even though, he stated, the NRC has allowed a quality assurance failure crisis to persist in the industry for decades.

Geoffrey Fettus, Senior Attorney for the Energy & Transportation program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, allowed for a glimmer of optimism, on the heels of successfully negotiating a settlement between Entergy, owners of the Diablo plant in California, and the state, saying that decommissioning was basically “A huge industrial cleanup with a new component: Waste that lasts for hundreds of millions of years.” 

Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project for Beyond Nuclear, stressed the importance of so-called reactor “autopsies”—currently an optional component of decommissioning—to be made a requirement.

Al Hill, Mayor of Zion, Illinois, weighed in with a case study of his community, which is still struggling with the legacy of a nuclear plant decommissioned in 1998. David Kraft, Director, Nuclear Energy Information Service, presented on the economics of decommissioning, stressing the need for an independent auditor to be hired “before a spade is stuck in the ground.” 

Deb Katz, Executive Director of Citizen Awareness Network, who led a successful lawsuit against the NRC in regards to the decommissioning of Yankee Rowe Atomic in Massachusetts, cited a “meltdown in democracy,” since that time stemming from changes in NRC regulations.

“Yankee Rowe submitted a 300-page decommissioning plan with specific commitments: You could petition, bring in expert testimony, get into the process of a legal proceeding, and appeal to district, federal and supreme court in terms of these issues.”  

Pointing to the deregulation of the energy sector in 1990’s, and a series of lawsuit findings concurrent with the shuttering of Vermont Yankee in 2014, she continued:

“Now all that is gone. A nuclear corporation can now submit a 30-page paper that simply lays out in a generalized way what they are going to do, and they don’t need approval from the NRC. This is a situation in which you have no power.”

Manna Jo Greene, Environmental Action Director for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, who sponsored the forum in conjunction with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and, concluded the day's discussions with a rally cry, stating that—in her lifelong experience as an environmental professional and community activist—if the cause was worthy, and the community persistent, then justice would prevail. She added that additional forums would be held in the fall, and that "Just Transition"— a framework developed by the trade union movement to secure workers' jobs and livelihoods—would be the focus of one of them.

Marcia Gagliardi, not present but a prolific anti-nuclear activist on the ground at Vermont Yankee, when asked for comment via email, echoed the expert's grim tone:

"To be quite blunt, the Rowe/Vermont Yankee contingent of resistors is stymied by what to do about nuclear waste . . . Which is to say, none of us can figure out how to demand action about the waste issue. We don't know what action to demand. We can't figure it out.”

One action citizens can currently take: The NRC is presently requesting comments on Regulatory Improvements for Power Reactors Transitioning to Decommissioning, to “support a draft regulatory basis to support a rulemaking that would amend NRC's regulations for the decommissioning of nuclear power reactors.”  

The NRC's goals in amending these regulations would be to provide for a more “efficient decommissioning process” and to “reduce the need for exemptions from existing regulations,” among other issues. The comments period closes at 11:59 PM tonight, June 13, 2017.

 From left: David Kraft, Gordon Edwards, Deb Katz, kevin Kamps, Tim Judson, Paul Gunter, Al Hill, Manna Jo Greene

From left: David Kraft, Gordon Edwards, Deb Katz, kevin Kamps, Tim Judson, Paul Gunter, Al Hill, Manna Jo Greene