By John Buchser, Nuclear Waste team
Our nation has made extensive use of nuclear power for commercial power generation.
“Too cheap to meter” was what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair told the nation in 1954. Now, the new lie has emerged: “It is safe to ship the radioactive waste from our reactors and temporarily store it in New Mexico.”
The amount of time and expense it takes to design, build, and subsequently monitor a nuclear reactor is huge. It should be no surprise that little effort has gone into learning how to safely dispose of this radioactive waste. That needs to change.
Scientists at Los Alamos and Sandia are working with scientists from around the world to understand how to safely store this high-level waste for very long periods of time. It’s a tough problem. The multimillion-year timeframe needed for radioactive decay to occur does not provide a convenient box in which to safely place this waste in our planet’s thin crust.
The NRC’s role is to facilitate use of nuclear power. The industry it regulates is understandably focused on two goals: making power to sell to customers and making this power as cheaply as possible. But given the de-regulatory administration, is safety adequately considered? Is the public’s trust in the NRC warranted?
We had a recent wake-up call when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor had multiple units go critical and burn, distributing radiation around the planet. The National Academy of Sciences looked at lessons learned from this disaster and made recommendations. Of six recommendations the NAS made on how to ensure safety of waste — the transfer of the used radioactive fuel cores out of reactors into cooling pools — only one was adopted by the NRC.
The NRC says it is following the law in considering a 40-year license for a site in New Mexico for “temporary” waste storage. It does not seem to matter that the federal law requires the waste must go to a permanent repository.
It matters to me that Holtec’s application to the NRC to store this waste does not consider transportation risks — that’s a separate problem for the Department of Transportation. The shipping casks were tested by dropping them from a height of 40 feet. How many bridges are higher than that on the probable transportation routes? How much does DOT know about nuclear waste?
What will we do when a leaking cask arrives in New Mexico and Holtec proposes to send it back where it came from?