Summary

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing on the urgent need to safely decommission nuclear power plants, which are increasingly shutting down. The United States is facing a significant wave of nuclear plant closures for which it is unprepared. Most of the existing U.S. reactor fleet will inevitably close over the next two decades, as plants near the end of their operational lifespans. Decommissioning is the process of dismantling the closed plant and securing or removing radioactive waste while lowering the site’s residual radioactivity to safer levels. Getting decommissioning right is critical to communities’ health and safety, while getting it wrong could pose an existential threat.

Leading scientists, policy experts, NGO advocates, and local elected officials with experience on decommissioning spoke at the briefing. It covered the impacts of decommissioning, current decommissioning options, waste storage vs. transport, thorny unsolved problems and best practices, financing and liability, a just transition for communities and workers, how communities and states can and can’t weigh in on these issues, and how they should inform the fast-changing legislative and regulatory landscape.

Bob Musil (moderator), President and CEO, Rachel Carson Council; former Executive Director, Physicians for Social Responsibility

  • Bob Musil outlined the nuclear decommissioning problem: we are shutting down upwards of 80 nuclear power plants that have reached their operational lifespans throughout the United States. All of them contain dangerous nuclear waste that has to be properly disposed of.
  • These shutdowns affect the economy and community health.
  • There is a lack of planning with respect to our disposal of spent nuclear fuel rods.
  • Nuclear waste material is dangerous, the amount of material is growing, and we need to do something about it.

Robert Alvarez, Senior Scholar, Institute for Policy Studies; former Department of Energy Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment

  • Nuclear power plants are no longer about generating electricity. Rather, they have become major large-scale waste management operations.
  • Approximately 30 percent of the world’s spent nuclear fuel is generated in the United States.
  • Nuclear waste is some of the most hazardous material on the planet.
  • For the safe management of nuclear waste, it should be contained for about 10,000 to 100,000 years.
  • Spent fuel pools are holding four to five times more fuel rods than planned, and these pools are holding the fuel rods for longer than planned. This is risky, because a spent fuel fire could cause massive economic damages and require large scale evacuations.
  • According to the Department of Energy, it will cost about $3.8 billion to store stranded spent fuel rods.
  • There are approximately 80,000 small canisters that need to be repackaged, and many of these dry casks cannot be opened up without the proper infrastructure. It will cost about a billion dollars per reactor for repackaging.
  • Storage disposal needs to be revamped in the United States. We need to develop a transparent, comprehensive roadmap for dealing with spent fuel rods.
  • Alvarez stressed that we need to stop storing spent nuclear waste in high-density pool storage.
  • Short-term casks are licensed for a 40-year period, and can be re-utilized if they hold up.
  • The United States lacks a national storage policy, and this is why nuclear storage pools are jammed packed. The Department of Energy should have a role in storage planning besides restarting Yucca Mountain – we need to think of nuclear storage as a priority.

Kevin Kamps, Radioactive Waste Specialist, Beyond Nuclear

  • Beyond Nuclear opposes the current policy of risky pool storage and dry cask storage. Instead, Beyond Nuclear advocates for a “hardened storage” approach to nuclear waste.
  • Beyond Nuclear also opposes the unauthorized transport of nuclear waste across the country and it does not support storing nuclear waste at the proposed Yucca Mountain site.
  • If a spent fuel pool caught fire at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, about 50 million people would need to be evacuated. The risks posed by spent fuel pools are even greater in the United States, because the pools are packed more densely.
  • Hardened On-Site Storage (HOSS) is a preferred storage mechanism, yet it would take about 50 years to transfer over to HOSS.
  • In terms of centralized nuclear storage, Texas and New Mexico have been viewed as a “nuclear sacrifice zone,” and they should not be.
  • Kamps described the dangers involved in the long-range transportation of nuclear waste and urged individuals to “study the details of the places you care about,” so that they are aware of the potential risk that nuclear waste transport poses to their community.
  • Kamps argued against H.R. 3053, a bill that would increase the amount of nuclear storage to be buried at Yucca Mountain (sponsored by Rep. Shimkus). It passed the House on May 10 and is now being considered by the Senate.
  • Kamps explained that the United States has been dealing with nuclear waste for close to 80 years. We need to stop making nuclear waste, harness onsite storage, and prevent the risky transportation of nuclear waste.
  • When discussing economic development in post-nuclear communities, Kamps stated that workers with institutional knowledge should be in charge of clean-up for years, and even decades, to come. He also explained that nuclear workers can be retrained to work in industries that help us transition to cleaner, renewable forms of energy.
  • Beyond Nuclear calls for Hardened On-Site Storage as close to the point of origin as possible (to minimize transportation risk) for interim storage. Deep geologic disposal remains the end goal, but several criteria must be met (scientific suitability, environmental justice, legality, consent-based siting, minimizing transportation risk…).
  • The good news is that more nuclear plants are closing, which rules out core meltdowns in those locations and limits the generation of more nuclear waste (currently at the rate of 2,000 metric tons per year).

Mayor Al Hill, Mayor of Zion, Illinois (home of the decommissioned Zion Nuclear Power Station)

  • The town of Zion, Illinois, is home to a decommissioned nuclear power plant that was in operation from 1974-1998. This nuclear plant still has about 64 dry cask storage units for nuclear waste onsite.
  • When the town agreed to host this nuclear plant, it was aware of the high costs (health and environmental risks, restricted access to the beaches on Lake Michigan, etc…), but was also aware of the benefits (an increase in jobs, a boost to the local economy, etc…). The town was promised that the property would be returned to the community in pristine condition once the plant stopped operating.
  • There are now 2.2 million pounds of nuclear spent fuel rods on the lake front. Mayor Hill stated “this was not part of the deal…we don’t want to be a nuclear dump site.”
  • Mayor Hill explained that, with Yucca Mountain closed, the town is not naïve enough to believe the nuclear rods will be removed anytime soon. Therefore, he argued that the federal government should compensate the community.
  • The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act was intended to begin the nuclear waste disposal process, and allocates funds to help communities deal with nuclear waste disposal, through the “interim storage fund” provision.
  • Zion has never been asked about, nor consented to, the turning of its nuclear power plant into a permanent waste storage facility.
  • The STRANDED Act of 2017 (S.1903, H.R.3970) deals with stranded nuclear waste. This bill is a good start and it should receive bipartisan support, as nuclear waste affects both Democratic and Republican districts.
  • Decommissioning the Zion nuclear power plant has decreased local housing values significantly and cost the community about 800 jobs.
  • Mayor Hill argued that Zion should receive federal compensation for the economic and social losses it has suffered because of its storage of nuclear waste.

Ian Zabarte, Secretary, Native Community Action Council

  • Ian Zabarte stated three primary contentions that the Native Community Action Council has with nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain.
  • The first contention deals with ownership. The 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley is in full force and effect, and the Western Shoshone title remains unextinguished. The Department of Energy cannot prove ownership, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not adjudicate title.
  • The second contention deals with risk. Based on past exposure to fallout from weapons testing, the Shoshone Nation cannot endure any increased burden of risk from any source of radioactivity. This includes fracking, coal ash, or any high level nuclear waste that would be transported or stored in their land.
  • The third contention deals with water rights. Water is viewed by the Shoshone Nation both spiritually and as a property right. Zabarte stated that his people expect to be at Yucca Mountain for another 10,000 years, and they need pristine water ("something that is very rare now on this planet") for their survival. He explained that pure water is their religion and their identity.
  • “Yucca Mountain is not going to be a solution – period.” In addition to being Shoshone property, it is in the biosphere and above the water table and so not suitable for deep geologic (sub-sea) disposal of nuclear waste.

Jackson Hinkle, Member, San Clemente Green; Founder and President of Team Zissou Environmental Organization

  • Jackson Hinkle is representing San Clemente Green and future generations.
  • At the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, in San Clemente, California, nuclear waste is being stored in thin-walled canisters. These are widely used across the country, are 5/8th of an inch think, cannot be monitored for cracks, and cannot be transported. Once a crack in one of these canisters starts, it only takes 16 years to grow completely through the wall.
  • The President of Holtec, which designed the canisters, has admitted that it is not feasible to repair canisters, even if cracks were found.
  • Hinkle said that we should oppose consolidated interim storage bills (such as H.R.3053), require high priority projects to move existing thin-walled canisters to thick-walled casks, and find the safest location to store thick-walled casks. He said that the mismanagement of nuclear waste has long term effects, but it also affects us right now.

Geoffrey Fettus, Senior Attorney for Energy & Transportation, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

  • There is a downward trajectory to nuclear infrastructure, and decommissioning is coming (six reactors at five plants have recently closed, either for economic or safety reasons, and seven reactors at five plants will close soon). Only two nuclear plants are under construction but their future is uncertain (two other plants were cancelled this past year).
  • Decommissioning is a gigantic industrial cleanup – it is more complicated and challenging than almost any other type of industrial cleanup because of nuclear waste.
  • A few years ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Council (NRC) started work on rulemaking to address the issues of nuclear decommissioning, and the final rule will come out sometime in 2019 or 2020.
  • Unfortunately, the proposed rule does not currently address many contentious issues, including community transition and workforce needs, adequate funding, and emergency preparedness in sites storing nuclear waste. Congress will likely be called on to address these issues.
  • When nuclear power plants decommission, they are only required to send the NRC a letter (they don’t need to submit a decommissioning plan that needs to be approved by the NRC). The NRC thus cedes its regulatory authority and leaves no opportunity for the state, the local community, tribes, or NGOs to have any say in the cleanup (since they cannot react to a legally-binding plan).
  • There are different ways that decommissioning can take place. One is called “DECON” (decontamination), where clean up starts within the first several years. Another is called “safe store,” where reactor operators can simply sit on the nuclear sites for up to 60 years (which takes out valuable land out of communities and risks the loss of trained local staff for the actual decommissioning process). An increasing number of operators are selecting safe store (often because they do not have the resources to start Decom), to the dismay of states and communities.
  • Even though DECON is faster, reactor vessels will still not be broken up for at least a decade. So, these are going to be large, long cleanup processes.
  • The Duckworth and Schneider bill (S.1903, H.R.3970) is one of the few constructive efforts being made to compensate communities that will host spent fuel for decades to come.
  • Congress should make sure that communities with these enormous nuclear waste burdens are well served (not just compensated, but assured of significant federal oversight to ensure decommissioning is conducted safely).
  • When asked what the long-term solution is to nuclear waste storage/disposal during the Q&A, Fettus said the NRDC believes that geologic repositories can ultimately serve as a long-term solution for nuclear waste storage, and that the United States needs to get there in a publicly accepted way (by, for instance, doing away with the environmental exemptions in the Atomic Energy Act). You cannot force a state, such as Nevada, to accept the nuclear waste against its will. In the meantime, we need much more robust interim storage, such as HOSS. But Fettus reemphasized that this briefing is focused on decommissioning and the profound challenges it represents.

More than 80 reactor communities, as well as countless communities along proposed radioactive waste transport routes in 75 percent of Congressional districts, will be profoundly affected by how decommissioning is handled. The potential for radiological contamination, accidents, and long-term environmental, public health and economic damage increases as plants are dismantled and radioactive materials are handled, moved and stored. Reactor communities risk becoming de facto stewards of stranded high-level nuclear waste, which poses local and regional threats. Yet,  in most cases, shipping the waste can pose even greater threats. Communities will have to deal with the economic impacts of the legacy of reactor sites that can never be fully decontaminated.

The existing regulatory and legislative framework around decommissioning nuclear plants is insufficient to handle these issues, and in any case it is changing rapidly as Congress considers pending legislation (HR 3053 is just one example) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission drafts new rules that will govern decommissioning and spent fuel disposition. The experts who addressed this briefing have learned surprising lessons about decommissioning that Washington needs to hear as it makes key decisions the consequences of which we will live with for a long time to come.

This briefing was co-sponsored by Beyond Nuclear, Ecological Options Network, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS), Nuclear Resource and Information Service (NIRS), Riverkeeper, Safe Energy Rights Group, Unity for Clean Energy (U4CE), and others.