US nuclear industry leaves a time bomb

Issue 

By Jill Hickson Nuclear power is a dying industry in the US. The costs and the environmental problems are too great, while the price of natural gas and other fossil fuels has fallen thanks to the Gulf War. More than 100 planned reactors have been cancelled, and no new plants have been ordered since 1978. Meanwhile, large quantities of nuclear waste generated by the US nuclear industry and the military, and the problem of old reactors, are proving an environmental nightmare. In the case of the reactors, most people in the US are unaware that they live near a radioactive waste storage dump. They may also be unaware that they are paying to search for a solution to the mess. Since 1982 they have been paying higher costs for the use of electricity — raising over $10.5 billion to be spent on finding a solution. Seeking a permanent site for nuclear waste disposal, scientists have come up with ideas such as stashing it under the Antarctic ice, injecting it into the ocean floor and hurling it into outer space, but these have been rejected as too environmentally damaging and too expensive. There has been a proposal since the late '50s to bury the waste in stable rock formations deep below the earth's surface. In 1987 Congress amended the 1982 Nuclear Waste Act to select a possible site at Yucca Mountain, 160 km north-west of Las Vegas and adjacent to the Nevada nuclear testing site. Scientists are now researching the effects of drilling into Yucca Mountain and storing the waste inside. Some independent scientists label this a nuclear bomb waiting to explode. There are more than 420 nuclear reactors in operation in 33 countries around the world; 109 of them are operating commercially in 32 states in the United States. Extremely radioactive spent fuel rods and other radioactive wastes are currently stored at each reactor site in above-ground containers. Many plants have used up all their available storage space and are looking for other storage facilities. There is also the problem of defence wastes and old nuclear submarine reactors. As well, the US has promised to accept irradiated fuel from 40 countries with nuclear reactors, including Australia, Canada and Japan. Waste storage is a real problem. A typical nuclear power plant produces about 20 tonnes of spent fuel rods each year. Over 28,000 tonnes of spent fuel rods are thought to be stored all over the US. The amount is expected to double by the year 2003 and double again by the year 2030 — and this does not include wastes from military operations. It is expected that many of the operating nuclear plants will have to close in the next decade despite the fact that they have 40-year licences granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Of the 109 reactors, 45 have been in operation for 20 years or more. By the year 2000, 62 of the 109 will be 20 years or older. Some 21 commercial plants as well as government power plants, nuclear ships and research reactors, have already been shut down. The commercial reactors have averaged a life of only 11 years each. It is estimated that one-fourth of the reactors may be closed over the next few years. The owners of the nuclear industry and the government cite economic reasons for their closure. Nuclear power plants are costly to maintain while operating. Storage of the radioactive waste materials is also very costly. And as new safety standard are introduced under pressure from the public, the costs are escalating. But shutting down the reactors creates its own environmental nightmare and is also very costly. The owners are supposed to maintain the facility for years after its closure. Within two years of closing, the plant owners must submit a decommissioning plan which would "involve the safe removal of the reactor from service and the reduction of the residual radioactivity to a level that permits release of the property for unrestricted use". This is almost impossible. Only one of the three options comes close to achieving this aim. Called the Decon method, it involves taking the whole site, including the reactor, the stored wastes, the buildings and their contents, the machinery and the top soil and moving it all to another place for storage. Finding a suitable site for the reactor and waste materials has involved offering huge sums of money to an Indian reservation and a Central American country. The second method is entombing, which means everything at the site is buried where it stands, encased in a shielding material such as concrete, which has a short life as well. So far, only government-owned facilities have used this method; it is no long-term solution. The Safstor method is the third option. It really means: "Let's do nothing for now and make vague references to doing something in 60 years' time, after which time the radioactive material would have started to decay and removal would be less harmful". In fact, 60 years will change the contamination levels very little. Of the 13 reactors currently being decommissioned, most have opted for the third method. At an estimated maintenance cost of $15 million a year, this option is still very costly but it leaves too much opportunity for industry to abandon its responsibilities. In the short term, the government has agreed to nuclear plants building more temporary storage facilities on site, and the construction of a centralised, above-ground temporary storage facility near Yucca Mountain — without any requirements for public hearings or environmental assessment. It later could be used as a transfer station for materials on their way to the tunnels beneath the mountain. The mountain is made up of vast layers of a porous rock which contain minerals it is thought act as a natural barrier to the movement of nuclear waste. The plan is to build 160 km of tunnels into its interior about 300 metres below the surface and metres above the water table. In the tunnels will be placed large containers of nuclear waste, filled with solid materials like spent nuclear fuel rods as well as liquid wastes and sludges that have been vitrified. Three hundred scientists are currently at Yucca Mountain studying the likelihood of earthquakes and volcanoes, measuring how quickly the water moves through the rock, recording weather patterns and attaching radio transmitters to desert tortoises thought to be an endangered species. (Bulldozers clearing the site tend to run over them.) Already $6 billion has been spent on the research. Tunnelling began in 1994 and underground testing will begin in 1996. After a final decision to go ahead sometime in the next two decades, the waste materials will be transported to the site and stored there. After 50 years of monitoring, scientists plan to permanently seal off the area. Since the wastes will be radioactive for 10,000 years or more, burying it in a mountain may be a huge mistake and not a "permanent" solution at all. Some scientists fear a risk of an explosion if all the waste are stacked together inside the mountain. The life expectancy of the steel containers holding the wastes is very short in comparison to the life of radioactive material, and there is a possibility that the materials mixing together could set off a reaction.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.