Nuclear Plants Closing Early Leave Decades of Toxic Waste Stranded
Midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, the San Onofre Nuclear Plant waits to be dismantled. After more than 40 years of protests, lawsuits and safety scares, its two concrete-encased reactors, jutting from the pristine California coastline, are powered down and its massive steam turbines, once deafening, are quiet.
For the activists who fought to close the plant, the victory is bittersweet.
The reactors will disappear, but 1,600 metric tons of radioactive waste remain. While some is stacked in steel-lined casks, and the rest is submerged in cooling pools, all of it is trapped in a political and regulatory limbo that keeps it from going anywhere anytime soon. And San Onofre isn’t alone: More than 76,000 metric tons of waste is stranded at dozens of commercial sites, just as the U.S. approaches a critical mass of nuclear-plant retirements.
“Many were surprised to learn that when the plant is decommissioned, the fuel has nowhere to go,” said David Victor, chairman of the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel tasked with overseeing the closure. “The problem is, nobody is in charge.”
Under a 1982 law, the U.S. government, not the utilities, is responsible for disposing of radioactive waste that can take thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years to degrade. But more than a half-century after nuclear energy powered the first American home, the U.S. Department of Energy still doesn’t have a permanent solution for the waste left behind.
It’s a problem that will only get worse. On Oct. 24, the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station near Blair, Nebraska, became the fifth nuclear plant to close in five years. Of 119 reactors in the U.S., 20 are now being decommissioned and a half-dozen more are expected to close prematurely, nudged out by cheap natural gas and growing use of renewables.
Beyond that, “the big wave of retirements really starts coming in around 2030,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz warned last month at an event in Washington.
Among experts, the nuclear waste debate invariably turns on the fleeting nature of human institutions in dealing with an element that the Environmental Protection Agency has said must be isolated for 10,000 years to protect humans and the environment from toxic radiation.
“The problem with federal agencies is that the management structure changes every few years,” said Allison Macfarlane, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which licenses and regulates civilian use of radioactive material. “In hundreds of years, will these institutions be there, will they care, will they pay?”
That’s one issue. A second is where exactly to put the waste.
The safest thing to do is to bury it deep underground, below the water table and within a stable rock formation. Congress picked such a site in 1987: a desert ridge in Southern Nevada known as Yucca Mountain. The site abuts a nuclear weapons testing ground where 928 atomic tests were conducted between 1951 and 1992.
While a few Nevada counties agreed with the selection, the state government didn’t, and the Yucca solution soon devolved into a decades-long political fight that crossed party lines and spanned presidential administrations. In 2010, President Barack Obama finally scrapped the plan altogether, declaring the site unworkable.
Moniz, whose agency has primary authority for disposing of the waste, is hoping to overcome the problem, at least for the short term, by using interim storage sites built by the private sector, he testified before Congress in September. Last month, the DOE for the first time began soliciting public comments on that proposal.