Free To A Good Home: 75,000 Tons Of Nuclear Waste

As the Department of Energy embarked Tuesday on its third quest to find a permanent disposal site for nuclear waste—this time with community consent—a Chicago audience gave the feds a fresh reminder of the difficulties ahead.
"My guess is that anyone on the panel, anyone in this room, I doubt that any of us would say, 'Hey, bring it to my neighborhood,'" said Kathleen Ruse, an audience member at the DOE's first public meeting on "consent-based siting," held at the University of Chicago's Gleacher Center.
"I'm really curious why any community would want to have a facility here if they really understand what's being asked of them."
John Kotek, DOE's acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy, replied that such communities exist, like Carlsbad, New Mexico, already home to a deep geologic depository called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, and Andrews, Texas, home to Waste Control Specialists. Twenty-two communities asked to be considered for a nuclear waste depository in Canada, he said, and both Sweden and Finland have found sites through a consent-based process.
"Those are communities that have experience in that kind of work and are interested in taking more on," Kotek said.
But work—the promise of jobs—was raised as a false promise by communities that have made bargains with nuclear power before, like Zion, Illinois. Once home to the Zion Nuclear Power Station, the lakefront community north of Chicago is now home to a shuttered nuclear plant and a stockpile of its radioactive waste.
"There was an understanding that when the operating license of the plant expired, 400 acres would be returned to pristine condition and the property returned to us for development purposes. That was the deal. It was an unwritten deal, but that was the deal that people in Zion understood," said Al Hill, the mayor of Zion.
"There was never an understanding that once the plant closed, the Zion community would play host to—and I’ll be blunt here—a radioactive dump that contains 2.2 million pounds of spent fuel rods."
The 800 jobs, Hill said, have vanished, as has most of the $19 million in annual tax revenue the city derived from the plant, but the waste remains. Hill wants DOE to succeed in its search for a consenting site, so that Zion can enjoy, once again, the benefits of its lakefront.
But speakers suggested Zion's experience will weigh upon any other community's willingness to work with DOE.
"It’s a pretty sorry history that this process is going to have to overcome before you can expect communities to take you seriously," said David Kraft of the anti-nuclear group Nuclear Energy Information Service, who was invited by DOE to serve on the panel Tuesday.
"Zion is one of many," he said. "There are 10,000 abandoned uranium mines across the United States that tribes like the Dineh have to deal with daily. It contaminates their water and poisons their livestock."
There are also about 75,000 tons of nuclear waste stored at 79 temporary sites, mostly reactors both open and closed, in 34 states, waiting for a permanent disposal site, with 2,000 more tons added each year.
"The first cardinal rule of waste management is you don’t make more of it if you don’t have a permanent disposal site available," Kraft said.
In the 1960s, federal officials looked for a salt mine to store nuclear waste and settled on one near Lyons, Kansas. The initiative was cancelled in 1972 because of state opposition and concerns about the suitability of the site.
In the 1970s, DOE began its second search for a permanent depository, culminating in the selection of Yucca Mountain, Nevada in the mid-1980s. Yucca Mountain was defunded in 2011, again amid local opposition and concerns about the site.
In 2012, DOE's Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommended a consent-based approach to avoid the local and state opposition that scuttled the prior two efforts.
“We want to find folks who actually want this, not folks who want to get out from under an edict," said Robert Rosner, a nuclear physicist and former Argonne National Laboratory director who served as a host for the event, bridging the University of Chicago and the Department of Energy.
"Ultimately this stuff needs to be isolated for millennia from people and the environment," Kotek added. "The scientific consensus globally is that deep geological disposal is the way to go. We are looking at developing a deep geological disposal facility both for military waste and for spent fuel.
"We want to work with communities that are interested in taking on this mission, potentially becoming what we call willing and informed hosts."
Tuesday's meeting was the first of a series in which the DOE will take input on what its consent-based siting process should look like, The second will be in Atlanta on April 11, with six more to follow over the next eight months in Boise, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and Tempe.
At the end of Tuesday's meeting, a DOE official told the audience the DOE team would still be in Chicago Wednesday, if anyone still wants to meet and talk.

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