Nuclear energy may be on the ropes post Fukushima’s explosive meltdowns, but 70 years of U.S. bomb and power plant waste doesn’t dissipate so easily. Despite federal promises to the power industry to dispose of their highly toxic, long-lived poisons — and despite utilities collecting more than $25 billion in fees for such from customers — more than 75,000 metric tons of high-level waste is still being stored at nuclear power plants and other sites across the country, including the South Texas Project nuclear complex in Matagorda County.
Not only is radioactive waste extremely difficult to contain, it’s also wildly unpopular. Go figure. Proposed radioactive waste dumps have been beaten back by communities for decades: the most recent casualty being Yucca Mountain, the would-be orifice for most of the deadliest power plant waste. But the release last week of President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission’s report on how to deal with the problem (glowing and growing by roughly 20 tons per plant per year) has Texas poised to re-enter the national debate as a choice dump location — if for no other reason than the Blue Ribbon Commission’s primary recommendation is for a “consent-based” approach to dump siting (“encouraging communities to volunteer to be considered”).
Other recommendations include development of both geologic and centralized storage facilities: no more one-stop shops like Yucca. While there’ll be renewed interest in rainier states with curtains of granite at their disposal (granite would be nice, this stuff stays hot for tens of thousands of years; that water not so much), “consensus” suggestss a drier patch of West Texas known as Andrews County.
It wasn’t so long ago Texas was contending for the radwaste mother load. Before Nevada’s Yucca Mountain achieved the ignominious honor in 1987, the Panhandle’s salt domes were one of three locations being advanced by the U.S. Department of Energy. Imagine, Deaf Smith County in the “winner’s circle” with Yucca and Washington State’s Hanford Site.
Nationally, it’s become increasingly difficult to find a nuke-power support (43 percent of those polled last year said they would welcome new nukes). But repeated disasters have that way about them. Since Three Mile Island, we’ve experienced the full-scale explosion of Chernobyl, responsible, according to doctors in Russia and Ukraine, for hundreds of thousands of deaths (mostly young children, the most susceptible to renegade radionuclides). Then came last year’s multi-plant explosions at still-leaking Fukushima, the toll of which will be significantly worse.
While the nuke industry gasps for breath, the waste stream hasn’t cooled any.
With $12 billion dropped in the Yucca hole, the discovery of fissures that could one day flood the site’s chambers suggested the location wasn’t up to snuff. (Salt domes were preferable, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said after announcing the pass.) Washington State is likely out, too. The key Cold War facility critical to atomic bomb production outside Hanford, Wash., is proof positive that some genies simply won’t stay where they’re put. About 60 of 177 underground tanks storing 56 million gallons of radioactive wastes have leaked to date, polluting the groundwater. Radioactive tumbleweeds and jackrabbits are tracked beyond the fence line. And efforts to “vitrify,” or convert liquid slurries into a semi-solid state for storage, have hit speed bumps. Hanford researchers recently told USA Today they fear the decade-long $12.3 billion effort to convert the waste could lead to an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. “Engineers and other experts aren’t just warning that the way this facility has been operated risks wasting more time and money by proceeding. They’re warning that continuing with these plans risks people’s lives,” said Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
Which brings us back to West Texas.
If the feds opt for multiple dump locations, the site of the first new low-level radioactive waste dump in decades will likely come under scrutiny. Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists fought hard for and won permits (not without some prominent protest resignations within the TCEQ) for the first new low-level radioactive waste pit approved in years — and with strong local “consensus.” Unfortunately, when the talk is of deadly material that will outlive us all, we should be surveying as far as the wind blows and water flows.
As bad as the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast is for spent fuel, the highway or rail line is worse, statistically speaking. Despite all this uncertainty, CPS Energy Doyle Beneby told the Express-News two months ago that he expects the nuke industry to get back on track in “three to four years,” at which point we could see the City-owned utility to start shopping for nuclear partners again. So this point is for him, too. The problem with the Blue Ribbon report released last week is its failure to consider what Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist at the D.C.-based advocacy organization Beyond Nuclear, calls the “one essential recommendation” on radioactive waste: “to stop making any more of it.”