The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing on May 13, 2019, on nuclear power plant decommissioning, the process of dismantling and securing radioactive waste, and lowering residual radioactivity.
As the era of U.S. nuclear power winds down, decommissioning of nuclear power plants is becoming a major industry. Private companies are acquiring these plants, taking over their licenses, liability, decommissioning funds and waste contracts. With no long-term storage facility on the horizon, these companies plan to ship radioactive waste to Consolidated Interim Storage (CIS) sites in Texas and New Mexico.
To explore these issues, distinguished experts including regulators, independent scientists, NGO advocates, and representatives of affected communities, spoke and answered questions at the briefing.
- If any community is entertaining the notion of accepting a Consolidated Interim Storage (CIS) nuclear waste facility, they need to realize that it should be viewed as a PERMANENT facility, NOT a temporary one (Dr. Jaczko).
- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s treatment of local communities’ concerns has been thoroughly frustrating and inadequate. At San Onofre, NRC’s treatment of HOLTEC dry storage systems violates its own regulations. It failed to provide needed information to the public, and had a condescending attitude towards local communities’ asks and needs (Rear Admiral Hering).
- New Mexico does NOT want or support a CIS nuclear waste facility (Leona Morgan).
- Transportation hazards of nuclear waste have not been addressed, making transport of high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) premature; NRC is functioning as a “rubber stamp” for CIS licensing requests, without adequately addressing the more than 50 objections raised by intervenors (Kevin Kamps).
- Key questions must be answered as part of the nuclear decommissioning process, including the number and locations of monitoring stations, training of local operators, data dissemination to the community, and procedures to deal with above normal background radiation levels (Bemnet Alemayehu).
- Shipping high-level radioactive waste is more complex—and far more risky—than is generally understood (Marvin Resnikoff).
Carol Werner, Executive Director, Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) opened the program and Mary Olson (moderator), Director, Nuclear Information and Resource Service Southeast introduced the panel.
Hon. Greg Jaczko, former Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
- Economics and poor performance make it hard for existing nuclear plants to compete in wholesale electricity markets. Only two new nuclear plants are under construction in the United States and 198 are expected to shut down by 2030.
- Plants must have funds set aside for decommissioning, which may take up to 60 years to complete. Excess funds, if any, were expected to be returned to ratepayers upon completion of the decommissioning.
- Large pools of such funds have encouraged private companies to purchase nuclear plants from utilities for decommissioning. The companies promise earlier cleanup in exchange for being allowed to keep the savings. Unfortunately, these new owners may not be sufficiently capitalized and knowledgeable to deal with the hazardous work.
- There is no permanent waste repository in the United States. If and when one is approved, it will take decades to prepare, while waste is held on-site at reactors or at proposed Consolidated Interim Storage (CIS) sites.
Rear Admiral Len Hering, Sr. U.S. Navy (Ret.), safety expert and leading voice for proper waste management of the decommissioning process at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in southern California
- Safe handling of spent fuel must be closely supervised. A self-regulated system does not work. San Onofre’s decommissioning problems only came to light because of a whistleblower.
- Regulators are abetting the industry by granting virtually any waiver request, regardless of its reasoning and justification—thereby weakening regulations.
- 10 CFR § 71.85 (Code of Federal Regulations) requires that nuclear fuel waste containment be intact for transport. However, the untested, unmonitored, thin-wall canister systems now in use are fragile enough to be damaged by loading and unloading into steel lined storage holes. There are 2,500 such canisters in use in the United States.
- Safety enforcement is lax. Lift operators should not be chosen on the basis of lowest “rad” (radiation counts per minute), and a $116,000 fine will not get the attention of a $3 billion company.
- “There is no walking away from a nuclear accident.”
Leona Morgan, Co-founder, Nuclear Issues Study Group; Diné or “Navajo” community organizer and leading advocate from communities in New Mexico impacted by CIS and uranium mining
- The Navajo have dealt with the consequences of the nuclear fuel chain from the 1942 Manhattan Project and 1945 Trinity test, through to the present day. Today, they are being asked to deal with transport and more mining, while more than 4,000 abandoned mines and mills on their land go un-remediated. The Navajo call this, “Raping Mother Earth.”
- In 1979, the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock NW uranium mill tailings pond dam broke, sending tons of uranium and trillions of radioactive picocuries downstream to Navajo County, AZ. No one was ever compensated for this, the worst accidental release of radioactive waste in U.S. history, which occurred in a state with no commercial power plants.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are 15,000 abandoned uranium mines in 15 western states; 75 percent of those are on federal and tribal lands.
- Approximately 11 percent of the 4,225 Defense-related mines are on tribal and other federal lands where poverty, linguistic isolation, limited educational opportunities, and other factors contribute to increased vulnerability to pollution.
- According to Leona Morgan, this is Nuclear Colonialism…“the systematic dispossession of indigenous lands, exploitation of cultural resources, and the subjugation and oppression of indigenous peoples to further nuclear production… resulting in the destruction of indigenous peoples and cultures and creation of National Sacrifice Zones.” This is “slow genocide.”
- Navajo Nation Sovereignty is not being recognized. Land and minerals have been stolen under the General Mining Act of 1872, which grandfathered in uranium operations on land belonging to the United States, without having to pay a federal royalty.
- The 2005 Diné Natural Resources Protection Act stopped mining on Navajo land, and the 2012 Radioactive Materials Transportation Act stopped transport of nuclear materials, except for medical purposes.
- The 2007 United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a similar 2016 Organization of American States declaration, call for the respect of indigenous law and protection of the health of people, elements, Sacred Places, and future generations.
- In addition to long-documented, negative health impacts on native miners, there are also significant health effects of uranium on pregnant women and others who use water from contaminated wells and springs to drink, bathe, hydrate their livestock and irrigate their gardens. In some cases, people built homes from construction materials tainted with mine and mill wastes.
- The proposed Consolidated Interim Storage (CIS) facility in New Mexico is Environmental Racism. With no actual permanent storage available, CIS is de facto permanent storage.
- Southeast New Mexico is not suitable for CIS; it is an already overburdened area of the Permian Basin, subject to sinkholes and tornados, and with inadequate emergency preparedness.
- As New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said, “There is risk. We need to be clear about that. I don’t think it’s the right decision for the state.”
Kevin Kamps, Radioactive Waste Specialist, Beyond Nuclear
- There have been seven nuclear plant shutdowns since 2013. Reactor shutdowns are very good news, since meltdowns are no longer possible, and high-level radioactive waste is no longer generated.
- Closures have been announced for eight more plants, but five that should have closed have instead received extensions. Continuing the operation of many such plants, like Davis–Besse, 25 miles east of Toledo, OH, is like playing “radioactive Russian roulette.”
- Instead of massive subsidies for nuclear utility companies like Exelon, what we need is “just transitions,” including workforce retention and retraining.
- According to Kevin Kamps, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acts as a rubber stamp, rather than a regulator. The Holtec and the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance license application to build a Centralized Interim Storage Facility was approved in spite of 53 legal objections, including violation of the Administrative Procedures Act of 1969, and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.
- Holtec’s many ethical problems (e.g., bribery in Tennessee), quality assurance violations (e.g., the Chernobyl disaster cleanup), and negative environmental justice impacts, should disqualify it from this work.
- Radioactive kleptomania from inadequate decommissioning trust funds must be stopped. Billions are being spent on non-decommissioning activities, and much of the spent money leaves little to nothing to show for it.
- Pending legislation must be carefully considered. According to Kevin Kamps:
- Bad bills include:
- Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2019, which would advance the implementation of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
- S. 1234 – Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2019
- CIS and Yucca funding in 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations
- Good bills include:
- America’s Nuclear Districts’ Economic Development (STRANDED) Act of 2017
- S.649 – Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act
- Efforts by U.S. Representative Mike Levin (D-CA), urging the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development to expedite the removal of spent nuclear fuel from San Onofre and fund decommissioning of other nuclear plants across the country.
Bemnet Alemayehu, Staff Scientist and Radiation Health Expert, Natural Resources Defense Council
- Nuclear decommissioning means safe removal of a nuclear facility from service, removing spent fuel, dismantling and cleaning up contaminated materials, and establishing acceptable reentry standards with stakeholder groups involved.
- Remediation means reaching greenfield status at the end of the process.
- Key questions must be answered as part of the process, including the number and locations of monitoring stations, training of local operators, data dissemination to the community, and procedures to deal with above normal background radiation levels.
- Emergency preparedness includes standards for each phase, including cessation of operations and wet pool and dry cask storage.
Marvin Resnikoff, Senior Associate, Radioactive Waste Management Associates, international consultant on radioactive waste (radwaste) management issues
- Regulations for shipping radwaste were established in the 1960s. Over the years, many of the original restrictions have been removed.
- Each truck cask on the highways can carry up to 40 times the long-lasting radioactivity released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
- It would take 50 years to move all existing waste from 76 shipping sites to a single national repository (with a daily average of 1-3 trains (3-5 casks per train) and 1-2 trucks (1 cask per truck)).
- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s hypothetical accident conditions (impact, fire) have been tested by computer simulation, only.
- Rail disasters happen regularly. The Lac-Mégantic fire in Quebec destroyed half the city’s downtown, with 28 dead and 22 missing.
Can’t the new generation of nuclear power help us respond to climate change?
- The new designs are actually old ones with the same problems. Investing more money in them takes it away from real solutions. And, nuclear energy isn’t really “carbon free.” Enrichment, transportation and construction are large carbon emitters. Even if we improved the process, it still isn’t viable with no real plan for waste. Worryingly, countries with the greatest political and geopolitical risk are those that are now investing in nuclear technology, with all the dangers that entails.
What about the paradigm shift of selling nuclear plants for disposal?
- Onsite risks are bad enough, but consider inexperienced companies shipping waste on a barge down the Hudson. It also does not consider terrorist risks, and other disasters. Fifty million people would have had to be evacuated if Fukushima had been worse.
Are some storage methods better than others?
- Currently, thin wall casks (typically 1/2”), which are not approved for shipping, are being used when thick wall casks (10″ to almost 20”) would be better.
This briefing was cosponsored by Beyond Nuclear, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Natural Resources Defense Council, Nuclear Energy Information Service, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Riverkeeper, the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, and other participating groups.
- Download Hon. Greg Jaczko’s Slides
- Download Leona Morgan’s Slides
- Download Kevin Kamps’s Slides
- Download Bemnet Alemayehu’s Slides
- Download Marvin Resnikoff’s Slides
- Download Mary Olson’s Slides