When the Limerick nuclear power station near Philadelphia ran out of space to store some of its radioactive waste earlier this year, owner Exelon Nuclear asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to send it down the Pennsylvania Turnpike to its sister plant, Peach Bottom, in York County.
The NRC said, “yes.”
This was “low-level” waste, not the highly toxic spent fuel that dominates discussions about the byproducts of nuclear energy. But don’t be fooled by the name, this special category of trash can include anything from contaminated tools, to clothing, fluids, even machinery and reactor parts with half-lives in excess of 100,000 years.
The request could be warning bell for the industry and policy makers that yet another waste issue could plague the nuclear industry at a time when they are touting its benefits to a energy-hungry nation – it does not use foreign oil or produce carbon emissions associated with climate change.
But it does produce trash that has proven hard to get rid of.
Across the U.S., nuclear plants, hospitals, universities, and industry generate about 2 million cubic feet of low-level trash a year. And in Pennsylvania and 35 other states that have no permanent home for it, it mostly stays where it’s created.
Like its deadlier sister – spent nuclear fuel rods – finding a home for low-level waste has been a long, slow process. The federal government is responsible for developing a site for spent fuel rods and other highly radioactive waste, but low-level waste is the responsibility of the states. Congress saw to that In 1985 when it passed the Low-level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act.
The Act encouraged the states to join together in compacts to share responsibility for building storage sites. Nine compacts were formed, but, so far no disposal facility has been built.
Today, only three sites in the U.S. accept low-level waste, and two of those are restricted to “compact” states.
The one site that does accept the waste, a facility run by Energy Solutions in Clive, Utah, accepts only Class A waste, the least concentrated. Pennsylvania waste is shipped to Utah. Class B and C wastes contain higher levels of radiation with C being highest. These are warehoused at nuclear plants, hospitals, and research universities across Pennsylvania.
Watchdogs, regulators, and industry groups alike acknowledge that storing the trash in hundreds of sites around the country creates unnecessary liabilities, including risks to health and national security. (Even a small amount of low-rad waste in the hands of a terrorist could irradiate several city blocks causing tremendous economic damage, if nothing more.) It would be harder for the waste to fall into the wrong hands if permanent storage was available, officials say.
And there is a moral argument for a permanent site.
“What we have are nuclear plants that are constantly kicking the can down the road,” said Jeff Schmidt, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, and a member of the DEP’s Low-Level Waste Advisory Committee. “We have a moral obligation to deal with this problem now. People are benefiting from the electricity being generated today and saddling future generations with dealing with the waste products, and that’s immoral.”
Relief in sight?
A new disposal site under development in Andrews County, Tex., by Waste Control Specialists may ease the dilemma. WCS’s plans to accept all classes of low-level waste, possibly as early as 2013.
“Once the Texas facility opens, our LLRW storage issue will be resolved,” said Rich Janati, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Nuclear Safety, and administrator for the Appalachian Compact Commission.
Janati, who has spent decades working on the issue, said the Texas plant offers the greatest hope to waste generators who are sitting on tons of Class B and C waste.
The nuclear industry is just as optimistic, but with a little more caution.
While Waste Control’s intention has always been to accept waste from states outside its compact, the final say will come from the Texas state Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry, who will set conditions for waste, said Ralph Andersen, senior director of radiation safety and environmental protection for the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C., an industry group
Even if approved, which NEI expects to happen, Pennsylvania’s generators will have to go through Texas’s review process for approval. Pennsylvania lawmakers would also have to approve the agreement.
“There is a great misunderstanding that if the governor (Perry) signs this thing that everything is OK,” Andersen said. “But all it does is approve a process. It’s not going to happen over night.”
While it’s far from a crisis, federal regulators and watchdog groups say storage space for low-level trash will become a higher priority when the nuclear industry begins decommissioning some of its 104 power plants.
“When they do, they will generate as much waste as they generated during the lifetime of the facility,” said the Sierra Club’s Schmidt.
The NEI’s Andersen said the industry wants the long-term predictability only a permanent solution can offer.
“What’s difficult is when I go back in three years and say ‘Whoops, I can’t ship my waste there anymore.’ Boards don’t like that, and neither do public utility commissions,” he said. “Predictability is what we’re really aiming at.”
In the 1960s, the nation had six disposal sites for low-level waste. Space was plentiful and the price was cheap. But by the late 1970s, the landscape began to change. There were environmental problems and an accident at Three Mile Island. Some sites closed and the price of disposal mushroomed.
In 1979, when the governors of the last three sites accepting low-level waste announced they were closing their facilities to out-of-state waste, Congress responded by passing the Low-Level Waste Disposal Policy Act, which made each state responsible for its own waste.
Pennsylvania joined with West Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland to form the Appalachian States Compact and agreed to host the site. State taxpayers spent millions to design a storage facility that, ultimately, was never built. Republican Gov. Tom Ridge pulled the plug on the program, saying it wasn’t worth the price.
At the time, the volume of waste was falling, and so were disposal costs.
Schmidt said the Pennsylvania site was never built because tough environmental standards demanded by the siting commission made it too expensive.
“The bottom line is the siting process stopped … because the process we require for establishing a facility in our state … is way more expensive than what is currently being allowed in other states,” he said. “Our protection requirements have shielded us.”
Low-level radioactive waste is sent to three facilities in the U.S. All but one limit states from which they will accept shipments.
Barnwell, S.C. Barnwell is licensed by South Carolina to receive wastes in Classes A, B and C. The facility accepts waste from Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina.
Richland, Wash. The facility is licensed by the state of Washington to receive wastes in Classes A, B and C. It accepts waste from states that belong to the Northwest Compact (Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming) and the Rocky Mountain Compact (Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico).
Clive, Utah. Clive is licensed by the state of Utah to accept Class A waste only. The facility accepts waste from all regions of the United States.
A fourth site has been licensed and is expected to open in 2013.
Andrews County, Texas. When it becomes operational, the facility will accept Classes A, B and C low-level radioactive waste from Texas and Vermont, as well as from the federal government.
Source: Nuclear Energy Institute
Photo by Thundercheese
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