We’re confident that radioactive waste is a problem but what do nuclear regulators think?

Guest Blog | December 13, 2013 | Energy Justice, Energy Policy, Nuclear
Nuclear waste is no laughing matter

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about ‘waste confidence.’ It’s a wholly confusing term about an extremely important topic: the toxic, highly radioactive nuclear waste that’s been produced by and is piling up at nuclear power plants for decades across the country.

In 1984, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published the Waste Confidence Rule, which basically removed all consideration of used (spent) nuclear fuel from licensing decisions by placing ‘confidence’ in the long term safety of storing spent nuclear fuel and the eventual procurement of a federal geologic repository. Basically, the rule allowed the agency to say that they’re confident that something will be done one day with this dangerous waste so there’s no need to consider it (or the concerns of the public about it) during licensing decisions.

Thus, the NRC issued licenses to nuclear power plant operators without considering the environmental impacts of storing highly radioactive, used nuclear fuel at reactor sites across the country. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit threw this rule out, declaring it was insufficient in meeting the requirements laid out by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). They ordered the NRC to do a full analysis of the potential environmental effects of storing spent nuclear fuel onsite permanently. The NRC then decided to halt all pending licensing decisions until this was completed.

The NRC recently published its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS) and proposed Waste Confidence Rule. And instead of examining what would happen if extremely long-lived and highly radioactive spent fuel remained unprotected at reactors sites indefinitely, the NRC assumed that spent fuel would be safely managed in surface storage for an indefinite period. To this end, the NRC is essentially involved in the same fallacy that rendered the Waste Confidence Rule insufficient in the first place. Just as one cannot assume that long-term geologic storage will be secured, one cannot assume that indefinite storage onsite will be safe. To act under these assumptions is inconsistent with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and violates the NRC’s own regulations.

Meetings were held over recent months to garner public comment on the DGEIS. In spite of the large number of nuclear plants in the Southeast, only two meeting were held in the region: in Charlotte, North Carolina and Orlando, Florida. Despite a request by U.S. Representative Hank Johnson from Georgia and several public interest groups to hold a meeting in Atlanta, the NRC declined. In a response from NRC Chair Allison MacFarlane, a lack of resources was part of the reasoning cited for declining the meeting. Considering that Atlanta is home to the NRC’s Region II headquarters, it’s questionable that resources better supported the travel of NRC staff to Charlotte and Orlando and the booking of the Orlando Airport Hilton as a meeting location rather than to host the meeting locally.

Of greater concern is the inaccessibility of the meetings to people from impacted communities. Orlando has 5 reactors within 215 miles, Charlotte has 7 within 150 miles and Atlanta has 11 reactors within 170 miles. An Atlanta meeting would have provided a more accessible location for people living in reactor communities from several states. Instead, people from Atlanta drove over 6 hours to attend the Charlotte meeting and folks from Alabama and Tennessee and elsewhere in the Southeast were largely unable to participate in-person. The Orlando meeting, as we predicted, had very low attendance. So low, in fact, that NRC staff commented on how low it was compared to other meetings. Certainly there should have been more meetings across the country, and certainly one in Atlanta, the region’s hub city.

Image from NIRS

Regarding the content of the DGEIS, it overlooks the unique characteristics of each site and, instead offers a glossed-over generic analysis concluding that most environmental impacts of storing highly radioactive waste onsite indefinitely would be ‘small.’ The proposed action of the draft GEIS is to issue a rule that, if adopted, would not require consideration of the environmental impacts of continued onsite, surface storage at individual reactor sites. That is absurd and unacceptable as it fails to address the circumstances at individual reactor locations.

For instance, several reactor sites in our region are in ecologically sensitive areas, including Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point near Miami, which is situated between the Everglades National Park and Biscayne Bay. Given Turkey Point’s location, sea level rise and storm surges are real threats that must be considered. Can the NRC ensure that spent nuclear fuel can safely sit at Turkey Point for even one hundred years let alone indefinitely? Even the nuclear industry folks seem to recognize this. At the Orlando meeting SACE staff attended in November, Rod McCollum of the Nuclear Energy Institute said, “I’ve heard about Fukushima being a reason why you would not be confident in the safety of storage. What Fukushima is- and a tragic and unacceptable event it was -is an example of why you shouldn’t build reactors at sea level in an area where there’s a historical record of very tall tsunami’s without sufficient protection, with safety systems vulnerable.” (Find meeting transcripts here.) While tsunamis may not be a prevalent threat to Florida’s coasts, hurricanes, storm surges and impending sea level rise most certainly are.

Similarly, Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle in Georgia is located on the imperiled Savannah River and was recently made the Georgia Water Coalition’s 2013 “Dirty Dozen” list. In addition to being in a sensitive ecosystem, Plant Vogtle is also located across the river from the Savannah River Site (SRS), yet the DGEIS gives no consideration to the cumulative impacts of having reactors and corresponding nuclear waste in such close proximity to a highly contaminated Department of Energy radioactive waste site. Additionally, both Vogtle and Turkey Point are slated for more reactors and thus, if built, even more toxic radioactive waste would be generated. The NRC cannot turn a blind eye to the unique characteristics of each site and each community. Communities in the Southeast region already carry a heavy burden when it comes to highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel. There are only five states with over 3,000 metric tons of spent fuel, and two of those are in the Southeast (North and South Carolina). Of the 100 currently operating reactors in the country, 32 of them are in our region, and all five of the reactors currently under construction are here.

While the NRC has ‘confidence’ that long-term geologic storage will eventually be found, the public has lost ‘confidence’ in the NRC to adequately address the unique and important concerns facing each and every nuclear power plant. Many organizations, including SACE, are also concerned about the nuclear industry’s influence and recommendations. This is especially true in light of this draft GEIS that is based on erroneous assumptions and has the NRC ‘confident’ that spent fuel can be safely stored onsite, for an indefinite period of time – a period that could be literally forever. With a government shutdown in very recent memory, who knows if the NRC will even be itself operating next year let alone a hundred years from now or more?

Thankfully there is still time to weigh in and share your concerns with the NRC. The public comment period ends December 20, 2013 and here are some resources that can help:

  • Find talking points here;
  • Learn how to submit comments via our recent Action Alert;
  • Access SACE staff comments from the November 6 meeting in Orlando here and the December 9th national teleconference;
  • Understand more about waste confidence with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ infographic; and
  • Utilize a new, interactive sea level rise map that shows predicted impacts to population, hazardous materials sites and more.
UPDATE 12/23/13: View press release from 12/19/13 detailing collaborative effort of national organizations to submit comment with expert analysis by scientists and economists, links to all documents included in press release.

–SACE’s High Risk Energy Choices Program Director, Sara Barczak, contributed to this blog post.

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