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Until the end of the world

Part Three in a Series: Nuclear power stops; its poisonous wastes never do

Early conceptual artwork developed by the U.S. Department of Energy

 

“I think the human race is going to wreck itself, and it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it ... I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation.”

— Admiral Hyman G. Rickover
Father of the Nuclear Navy

 

Admiral Rickover’s speech to the Joint Economic Committee of Congress in 1982 followed a distinguished career outfitting U.S. warships and submarines with nuclear propulsion systems. His was a Cold War career devoid of serious mishap, yet just the same, Rickover saw the crisis that atomic power had unleashed on the planet.

In his testimony, he explained how our planet’s natural systems reduced the earth’s levels of radioactivity over millions of years, allowing humans and other forms of life to flourish on the planet. “Now when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible,” Rickover told the Committee, before adding a final dramatic condemnation of his naval fleet: “I would sink them all.”

As applications for new nuclear power plants run the circuit at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the first time in 30 years, the legacy of leaking radioactive waste dumps and stockpiled nuclear fuels is far from settled. Still, many local and national leaders aren’t waiting for a waste solution before pushing to expand the 104 U.S. reactors currently in operation. Instead, they appear to be banking, in large part, on a soon-to-open radioactive-waste dump in far West Texas and a little town called Andrews.

Perhaps the poster child for radioactive-waste problems in America is Hanford Works in Washington State. Now considered one of the most polluted sites in the nation, Hanford Works was the country’s first plutonium fuel production plant. It remains home to 256,000 cubic meters of radioactive liquid waste and another 2,000 tons of spent reactor fuel. “Downwinders,” those sickened by radioactive particles vented from the plant, are only now starting to receive compensation for their illnesses. It was at Hanford that researchers began to explore ways to dispose of this waste, which will outlive not only their children and children’s children, but perhaps the entire human family.

Kirk Drumheller went to work at Hanford in 1951. He led the advanced fuels development program, creating nuclear fuel rods for the country’s early experimental reactors. In those first years, workers at Hanford had “a blank check,” he said. “If they needed a big turbine, they could steal it from the nearest utility.” Though the facility was stocked with the country’s top scientists, basic human errors proved unavoidable, and Drumheller was unable to shake the nagging notion that, thanks to the unpredictable human element, big problems in the field were unavoidable. “Sooner or later,” he realized, “somebody is going to blow one of these things.” Several under-reported power-plant leaks, 1979’s Three Mile Island accident, and Chernobyl’s 1986 explosion proved him right.

In addition to the dangers inherent in operating nuclear power plants, nuclear fission creates a stream of extremely long-lived waste, including Iodine-129, Plutonium-239, Technetium-99, isotopes that remain deadly, in some cases, for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. A typical fission reactor creates roughly 30 tons of such waste per year.

As giant drums at Hanford filled up with liquid radioactive wastes, the problem of disposal became all the more pressing. Drumheller led a program in 1972 to explore the possibility of using nuclear fusion to burn off the waste piling up around the country. But he quickly realized fusion — still thought to be decades away — wasn’t practical.

He turned instead to the extra-terrestrial considerations, or “ET solution” — hundreds of rocket shots filled with the “hottest” nuclear waste, aimed at the sun. But he feared potentially poisoning other worlds. Nuclear watchdogs would later warn against launching waste into space due to the risk of the materials exploding in transit, as happened with a plutonium-powered Russian space probe that burned up over South America in 1996.

 The unsolved waste problem didn’t stop U.S. engineers from erecting nuclear plants across the United States into the 1980s. Today, roughly 20 percent of domestic power comes from nuclear power plants, all of which will ultimately have to be dumped or stored as radioactive waste.

Shallow land disposal spread across the country to disastrous results. After the Atomic Energy Commission decided in 1962 to close its federal dumps to civilian-generated low-level radioactive waste, one-time Hanford employee Fred Beirle smelled opportunity. Beirle opened the Richland Burial Facility at Hanford. Then he took his sales finesse on the road, as chronicled in the book Forevermore: Nuclear Waste in America, written by Philadelphia Inquirer reporters Donald Bartlett and James Steele. He opened a dump at Sheffield, Illinois, telling the community, “The material we handle is sweeping compound, glassware, rags, clothing, tools, and even chairs.” Residents would only later learn that hidden amid those rags had been 34 pounds of plutonium and 70 pounds of enriched uranium. By the time residents discovered the site was leaking, Beirle had already opened and abandoned another civilian waste site at Barnwell, South Carolina, under the company name Chem-Nuclear Services.


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Years after dumping began at Richland and Sheffield, the feds finally started creating policies to govern it. That included defining what this new waste stream was. The spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants were declared “high-level waste,” and the federal government agreed to take responsibility for their disposal. Everything else, essentially, was declared “low-level waste” and left to the states and private industry to handle. This low-level waste was further split up into three classes — A, B, C, and “greater than Class C.” However, since low-level wastes include hardware that comes in contact with high-level wastes, including control rods from the core of nuclear reactors and the irradiated piping that’s in near-constant contact with the highly radioactive water used to cool the core, low-level wastes can include the same range of radionuclides as the spent fuel itself.

“Some so-called low-level waste can give a lethal dose in 20 minutes unshielded, according to the Government Accountability Office,” said Dianne D’Arrigo, radioactive waste project director for the anti-nuclear Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “Plutonium, which is hazardous for a quarter to half a million years, is in so-called low-level radioactive waste.”

Most low-level wastes decay into benign substances within a few years; a fraction remain hazardous for much longer. Most notable is Iodine-129. With a half-life of more than 15 million years, it remains dangerous for 10 to 20 times that duration. While exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation from both cosmic and earth-bound sources is a fact of life across the planet, radiation exposure is known to cause cancer and birth defects and is suspected by some researchers — since the advent of nuclear-weapons testing and atomic power — of slowly weakening the human gene pool by spurring hereditary diseases and damaging immune-function response. Though radiation-related cancers may take decades to form, there is no level of radiation exposure that can be considered safe, according to the National Academy of Sciences’ report, the BEIR VII: Health Risks From Exposure To Low Levels Of Ionizing Radiation,

So far, the federal government’s promise to take care of the nuclear-power industry’s high-level spent fuel hasn’t come through, as attested to by the nearly 70,000 tons of the stuff still stockpiling at operating and retired nuke plants across the country. Nevada’s Yucca Mountain has been the U.S. Department of Energy’s choice for disposal for 77,000 tons* of high-level waste. However, Washington policy-makers have begun the process of defunding Yucca. After spending more than $9 billion on the site over three decades, the proposed 2010 fiscal budget holds only $197 million for the project. Come 2011, that figure is expected to be zero. Nuke boosters blame the de-funding of Yucca on Democratic politics and the staunch opposition of Senate Majority Leader* Harry Reid. They tend to underplay the recent discovery of a geologic fault line and magma plumes directly beneath the site, which would jeopardize the stability of the waste for the required million years.


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Given the timescale involved, the federal government has also been faced with the difficult task of warning away future civilizations from high-level waste dumps. Early proposals included placing enormous spike fields atop such sites. While Yucca may never have cause to plant the spikes, a warning network is closer to implementation outside Carlsbad, New Mexico, where the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project is already receiving military-generated radioactive wastes for disposal in a salt dome half a mile beneath the yucca and salt cedar. Roger Nelson, chief scientist for the U.S. Department of Energy at WIPP, says that when the facility is closed in 2034, warning towers will ring the perimeter. A central file room will detail precisely the wastes buried there. And smaller markers in multiple languages — including Navajo — will be buried across the desert. By including as much detailed information as possible, the DOE hopes that even the most distrusting souls will avoid disturbing the site for 10,000 years. To achieve that, the warnings will be as transparent and complete as possible to avoid being misread or disbelieved, Nelson said.

“A message is a thing that is for honest people, not for grave robbers; it’s not for tomb invaders,” Nelson said. “A message has to be believed. King Tut got that part of the message wrong. He said don’t enter into this pyramid because your souls will be lost forever and English anthropologists didn’t believe him and they went in anyway and got the gold.”

Our message to future generations will also say “sorry.”

“This is what’s here, and this is why we’re not proud of what we did, and this is how hazardous it is, and this is what it does: It causes cancer,” Nelson said. “We have to have enough information in the message that the recipient [is] able to make his own decision and believe it or not.”


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But neither Yucca nor WIPP will address the millions of cubic feet of so-called low-level radioactive waste being created by Texas power plants, research facilities, heavy industry, and hospitals. Most of this waste comes from nuclear plants at Comanche Peak and the South Texas Project. According to a 2000 Texas Commission on Environmental Quality report, the two nuclear plants will ultimately create 2.7 million cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste, most of which will decay within 300 years. However, STP is now preparing an application for a 20-year license extension, meaning that waste stream could be significantly higher. And expansion plans being pursued by NRG Energy and the City of San Antonio for STP (and Luminant’s proposed doubling of Comanche Peak) would double that figure again.

And just like power plants across the country, Comanche Peak and STP are running out of disposal options. Three of six national dumps closed in the 1970s after they began leaking. Beirle’s Sheffield site closed after hazardous wastes and radioactive materials leaked into the groundwater, leading to a lawsuit by the state of Illinois against dump operator U.S. Ecology. Radionuclides from the West Valley Nuclear Service Center in West Valley, New York, have been tracked to the juncture of the Niagra River and Lake Ontario, according to Judith Einach, director of the Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes, and dump cleanup is estimated to cost $10 billion. Maxey Flats Nuclear Disposal site in eastern Kentucky is now a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site. Soils, groundwater, and surface water at the site are contaminated with heavy metals, radioactive materials, and an assortment of toxic chemicals, according to the EPA. To date, about $100 million has been spent on “emergency remediation,” according to Karen Wilson, chief of staff for Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet. Another $27.5 million will be needed to finish the job. (The numbers do not include attorneys fees, she adds.)

Judging this track record, former Texas State Senator Robert Talton chose to fight against licensing a radioactive dump in Andrews County, Texas. “What had happened in the past was a private company would go in and reap the profits and leave the state cleaning up the waste,” Talton said. “Why would I do that again?”

It was a fight he would lose.

The closure of the three national dumps put a lot more pressure on remaining sites, like Barnwell in South Carolina. And the public and their elected representatives grew increasingly uneasy about becoming de-facto national dumps. Last year, Barnwell finally shut down to all but a handful of states.

“They got tired of being dumped on for so long by the rest of the country,” said Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth. “The state got tired of it. Environmental groups got tired of it.” It didn’t help that the state Department of Health and Environmental Control tried to keep news of tritium leaks at the dump a secret. “That kind of tipped things,” Clements said.

In 1980, Congress passed the Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, which required each state to make plans to provide for its own low-level waste disposal by 1986. The deadline was extended to 1993, the year the Texas Legislature entered into an agreement with Maine and Vermont to take the waste from those states in exchange for money to develop a dump site. After spending more than a dozen years trying to open a dump in West Texas, the Texas Legislature opened the process up to private industry and a battle for the contract got underway between Texas’ Waste Control Specialists and Envirocare, of Utah. While WCS proposed a traditional trench dump, Envirocare proposed an above-ground storage technology called “assured isolation.” Senator Talton favored the latter method, because he worried land disposal would one day threaten groundwater supplies in West Texas.

“Everyone in the Legislature agreed we needed to find a solution for Texas’ radioactive wastes,” Talton said. “The only thing we all disagreed on was how to store this stuff.”

In the end, Envirocare was outspent and outmaneuvered. In the midst of the fight, Talton, now an attorney with Woodfill and Pressler in Houston, said he was offered a bribe to switch sides. He told the Travis County DA that then WCS lobbyist (and now Texas Tech chancellor) Kent Hance offered him a $60,000 contribution toward his next election if he’d stop opposing the dump. Hance later called the complaint a “cheap trick” to scuttle WCS’s chances of becoming the state’s dump site. WCS prevailed, and pressure is already building to expand the site before it even opens.


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Today, WCS is finishing up paperwork that will allow it to become the first new low-level radioactive dump permitted in decades to dispose of Class B and C radioactive wastes. Since Barnwell closed to most of the country in 2008, there are now 36 states with nowhere to dispose of their waste streams. So no surprise that waste generators from around the country have already started to pester the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission for access to the WCS dump.

“We’ve had some initial inquiries, and at our first stakeholders meeting we did discuss importation,” says TLLRWDC Commissioner John Ford. “We’re going to have those conversations, but we’re not going to get ahead where our decision-makers, legislators, and Governor want to go on that. We want to make sure we’re acting in the state’s best interest.”

WCS is doing its best to drum up potential new clients, as well. “Flexible import provisions” would both help solve the nation’s waste problem and keep disposal costs down for Texas nuclear-waste generators, company officials told the Associated Press earlier this year. That message is finding receptive ears, said D’Arrigo of NIRS. “This is the only hope that the nuclear industry has right now for a place to dump their decommissioned nuclear reactors.”

WCS is currently licensed for 60 million cubic feet of federal waste from the DOE and is about to receive a license for about 2.5 million cubic feet for low-level compact waste, Ford said. With Comanche Peak and STP planning to expand, the Commission, however, just adopted a volume rule stating they would like 5 million cubic feet of space at the dump for compact wastes from Texas and Vermont.

Ford rejects the notion that the Andrews County dump will inevitably leak like the rest of the nation’s large disposal sites. “The horror stories you’ve heard from many, many years ago about how we handle waste, about how the government handles waste, that’s really a thing of the past. If you look at how they designed this facility and how the waste is going to be placed in this facility … it’s a very, very robust design.”

Yet several members of the TCEQ resigned after the agency’s commissioners ignored staff findings that “Groundwater is likely to intrude into the proposed disposal units” and that WCS “has not demonstrated that the site is suitable for near surface disposal of radioactive waste.” Glenn Lewis, a former employee in the agency’s radioactive materials division, was one of those who resigned in protest. In an earlier interview with the Current, he said, “there was the expectation clearly communicated four years ago that these licenses would ultimately be granted” by the TCEQ.

While the company has been licensed to store a wide variety of hazardous wastes for more than a decade, construction of the new trenches is not being funded by the company’s owner, Dallas-based billionaire Harold Simmons. Instead, Simmons hit the county up for a $75-million bond. In a controversial vote in a county that has been very supportive of the company, local residents split down the middle. It passed in May by three votes: 642 – 639. Andrews County dump opponent Peggy Pryor said she had residents calling her the very same night chanting, “Recount! Recount!”

 Pryor, a retired cardiac-monitor technician, has been fighting WCS for more than a decade. She recalls the first public meeting, held back in the late ’90s, in which the company announced its plans. “Then they gave the pitch, ‘Well, it’s old buckets and paint buckets and all that kind of stuff.’ And I thought, ‘This is their way to get in.’”

 Last week, Pryor’s legal challenge to 90 votes cast in the “Bonds for Billionaire’s” vote was rejected by District Judge Jay Gibson out of concern for potentially disenfranchising voters. Austin attorney David Rogers said he would likely either appeal to the Court of Appeals or motion for a new trial. Fourteen of the 90 votes Rogers wanted disqualified were cast by residents who had failed to sign their voter registrations, Rogers said. Another dozen voters failed to check the box that confirmed they are citizens.

“The law says if you don’t check that box, you don’t get to be registered,” Rogers said. Although those voters were later confirmed to be U.S. citizens, Rogers was unimpressed: “Great. That means next time you can check the box. And next time, after you re-register, you are eligible to vote.”

If Pryor’s case is accepted on appeal, the results could force the county to hold a new vote, pushing the dump’s anticipated opening date once again. WCS officials told the Texas Compact Commissioners members earlier this year that they wouldn’t be able to open until November of 2010. But on the phone this week, WCS spokesperson Tom Jones told the Current that details related to securing the money from the county have forced the company to punt to December. (“We’re still planning on 2010,” he said.)

The Commission could use the breathing room. Since the Texas Legislature neglected to fund the Commission last session, the group is struggling just to set up shop. And though the TCEQ has floated the Commission $100,000, Ford expects an annual budget will run closer to $700,000.

“When that facility is open and operational, the last thing we want is for us to be still standing there saying, ‘Well, we can’t afford to have a meeting,’ or ‘We can’t afford to do this or do that.’ That would be just awful. We’re working very hard to make sure that doesn’t occur,” Ford said. “There’s this big elephant we have to eat, just one bit at a time.”


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San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro supports moving forward with the expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear complex, a position that hinges in part on his faith in the development of a future waste solution. He reiterated that belief at a weekend Peoples’ Power Summit on the West Side held by the Southwest Workers Union.

“Although none of us can guarantee it — and I’m well aware that 30 years ago folks were saying a similar thing — I believe if you look 50 years from now, 70 years from now, 100 years from now, that issue will be resolved. And it will not have the dramatic effect that folks fear,” Castro told a small room of determined nuclear opponents.

The promise of nuclear fusion — the energy source stars use to maintain themselves —has kept many a nuclear physicist hopeful, as well. Fusion has long held out the possibility of not only virtually unlimited energy — if developed, it could also provide a source for burning up wastes from past and current fission reactors. China is taking the technology so seriously they hope to begin mining the Moon for fusion fuel Helium-3 by 2025.

Fusion optimism lives at the University of Texas, too. A January press release states: “Physicists at The University of Texas at Austin have designed a new system that, when fully developed, would use fusion to eliminate most of the transuranic waste produced by nuclear power plants.” Dr. Swadesh Mahajan and a small team of researchers at UT have developed — in theory at least — a solution to the nuclear-waste dilemma. It’s an “architectural” plan. The team still needs roughly $50 million to create the engineering model.

 While nuclear fusion has promised and failed for decades to deliver a working utility-scale reactor, a hybrid fission-fusion reactor is within reach, Mahajan insists. He describes it as “a fast reactor on viagra.” First, you need a fast neutron reactor, Mahajan says. Problem is: no such commercial reactor has been built in the United States, and most countries have completely abandoned development of the technology. Nonetheless, the proposal — and others like it — has generated a lot of talk on the fusion circuit. Those in the nuclear industry recognize the world’s uranium supply — thought to be somewhere between 50 and 80 years — is limited. And the Obama Administration’s sidelining of Yucca Mountain may opening the funding door for alternative disposal methods. But even Mahajan admits a working model of his team’s hybrid reactor is still 15 years away.

“The important thing is not that we start destroying the waste today,” he says. “The important thing is that we tell the public right now that we have the means of destroying it on which we can depend … And, till then, the waste can wait at the test site. Nothing is going to go wrong with that.” [For a less optimistic view of on-site storage, see “Risky Business,” September 30, 2009]

Drumheller has been hearing the fusion-solution promise since his days at Hanford Works. For his money, he still favors sorting out the hottest waste and shooting it into the sun.

“We know how to do space disposal. We don’t know how to do fusion,” he said. “It’s always been 20 years off.”

But Drumheller is a renegade. He jumped the nuclear tracks in the late 1970s when solar funding first became available during the Carter Administration. “I just stumbled on the solar business and thought, ‘Well, why in the world are we fooling around with all this other business?” Today, Drumheller is preparing to release a book on the ability of energy efficiency and solar power to totally replace fossil fuels and nuclear energy by 2030. “My feeling is, the way efficiency and renewables are going, you won’t even be looking at anything else in 15 years.”

But we’ll still be looking at nuclear waste. Whether or not we choose to return to creating it in high volumes is a matter of intense debate. Drumheller maintains the wastes created by atom-splitting carry too much risk to public health to be continued. “The Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable. In my opinion, there is nothing unsinkable or unbreakable that is handled, made, or run by human beings.” 

And while Andrews, Texas, may be drier than Richland, Hanford, or West Valley, the recent admission by WCS that groundwater is 200 feet closer to trenches on the east side of the site than their original application stated was enough to rekindle simmering concerns.

“Not one of these facilities hasn’t leaked — not one!” Pryor said. “I told them if they could prove one didn’t leak to me I would be for them, and they haven’t found me one yet.”

Thanks to the nature of waste to be buried there, the WCS dump will have thousands of years to prove itself the exception to the rule. •



* Correction: Reid was originally identified as "House Speaker" and the the capacity of Yucca Mountain was incorrect. And, yes, we really regret the errors.




See Also

Until the end of the world : Part Three in a Series: Nuclear power stops; its poisonous wastes never do 10/14/2009

Atomic Numbers : Is CPS cooking the books for nuclear power 9/30/2009

Risky Business : Part Two In a Series: What CPS won't tell you about nuclear power 9/30/2009

Nukes mean mines : Part one in a series: Are we digging a new toxic legacy before the last one’s filled in? 9/16/2009

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