Hanford: Awash in Radioactive Waste

Fred Pearce | New York Times

On its 60th anniversary, the civilian age of nuclear power in America appears to be almost over. But with the country awash in radioactive waste and plutonium stockpiled for warheads, the task of managing this atomic legacy grows ever more urgent. Opening a long-delayed waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is imperative.

President Dwight Eisenhower formally opened America’s first commercial nuclear power station at Shippingport, Pa., near Pittsburgh, on May 26, 1958. He declared it would “put the atom to work for the good of mankind, not his destruction.” His nuclear cheerleader, Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, had promised power “too cheap to meter.”

Today, with cheap gas and falling prices for wind and solar energy, nuclear power is often now too expensive to sell. Six plants closed from 2013 to 2017. At least seven more — from the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey to the Diablo Canyon plant in California — have been earmarked for final shutdown, often years before their operating licenses expire. About a quarter of the nation’s nuclear power plants don’t cover their operating costs, according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

America is still the world’s leading generator of nuclear power. But economics, more even than environmental concerns, is consigning nuclear power in its present form to history’s technological trash can. With well over a third of the country’s power reactors over 40 years old, the questions now are how long the accountants will allow them to keep going and what we will do with these power plants and the radioactive waste they produced.

President Eisenhower’s “atoms for peace” program was a spinoff from the nuclear weapons industry. The world’s first large nuclear reactors, erected at Hanford in Washington State in the 1940s, turned uranium fuel into plutonium for use in nuclear warheads. The Cold War production at Hanford has left the country with all the plutonium it could possibly need. The surplus 54 tons, mostly stockpiled at a weapons assembly plant northeast of Amarillo, Tex., is enough to be recycled into tens of thousands of new warheads.

Hanford’s vast complex is undergoing the country’s largest-ever environmental cleanup program for nuclear waste, with the eventual cost likely to exceed $100 billion. The hope has been that Hanford can at least be a test site for developing decommissioning technologies needed to cleanse the nation’s civilian reactors, an undertaking that will be nearly as expensive.

But things at Hanford haven’t been going well. Last year, the roof of a trench holding railroad wagons full of nuclear waste collapsed. Such was the concern about radioactive releases that aircraft were banned from flying over the area for several hours. Then there are the 177 giant storage tanks containing 56 million gallons of acidic and highly radioactive liquid leftovers from plutonium manufacture. (Their total radioactive content is more than twice that released in the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986.) They have leaked around a million gallons into the soil that is seeping toward the Columbia River. Work on a plant to solidify the liquids for eventual burial is 25 years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

Far away in the nation’s capital, some lawmakers question throwing more billions into the money sink at Hanford. But this outlay will be just the start of what needs to be a national effort to clean up the nation’s power plants that could eventually cost a half-trillion dollars or more.

There are two aspects to the national cleanup: decommissioning the radioactive plants themselves, and finding a permanent home for the huge volumes of plutonium-containing “spent fuel” produced by the plants’ reactors during their working life. That home needs to be safe and secure: plutonium is an emitter of virulent radiation, and has a half-life of 24,000 years (a half-life is the time it takes for half of the radioactive material to decay.).

Dismantling and safely removing the radioactive remains of a typical commercial reactor is hugely expensive. The eventual cost of doing this for all 99 nuclear reactors at the country’s 61 operating commercial power plants was put at $91 billion in a report last year by Callan, an investment consulting firm. But completing the task also requires a place to take the accumulated spent fuel and radioactive debris, and so far, the nation has abjectly failed to plan for this. Radioactive waste is strewn across the country.

The Maine Yankee plant in Wiscasset, Me., provides an example of how far behind we are. The plant shut in 1996. The residents of Wiscasset were promised the site would soon be cleaned up. But two decades later, 1,400 spent-fuel rods remain, stored in 60 steel canisters that are themselves encased in concrete, as well as 400 tons of casks containing radioactive steel from the reactor.

The Department of Energy has a legal obligation to take the spent fuel removed from retired commercial plants, but has nowhere to put it permanently. As the Government Accountability Office said in 2017, after decades and billions of dollars, “the future prospects for permanent disposal remain unclear.”

This is a dangerous mess. According to the same G.A.O. report, around 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel from commercial reactors is stockpiled at 80 interim storage sites in 35 states. Some remains at power stations, as in Wiscasset, and some at Energy Department interim storage locations. One such site, Fort St. Vrain on the Colorado prairie north of Denver, holds over 1,400 spent fuel rods left behind when the neighboring nuclear power plant shut almost three decades ago. It is designed to withstand earthquakes, tornado winds of up to 360 miles per hour, and flooding six feet deep.

These interim storage sites could be in business for many decades, since no community is eager to provide any of the nation’s nastiest nuclear trash a permanent home.

That is certainly true in Nevada. The federal government has long earmarked tunnels it has dug into Yucca Mountain — deep in a military reserve where the federal government once tested atomic bombs — for burials of the waste from Hanford and the nation’s commercial reactor fleet. But senators have stonewalled, and in 2009 President Barack Obama canceled the $120 billion project without putting an alternative plan in place. In his 2019 budget request, President Trump asked for money to resume the program. But the Senate turned him down.

This month, the House passed a bill to expedite licensing of Yucca as a permanent storage site. Support in the Senate for this, however, looks unlikely.

America cannot put off forever the day when it gets a grip on this lethal legacy. Yucca is as safe as anywhere, and we owe it to future generations to get digging. On the issue of permanent storage, this may be one instance where President Trump’s policy instincts are more farsighted than President Obama’s.

The United States’ failure to establish a burial site for its most dangerous and long-lasting nuclear waste could have tragic consequences. “Not in my backyard” means that the waste is left in everyone’s backyard. Unless put out of harm’s way, plutonium is virtually a permanent radioactive threat, and a potential attraction for would-be nuclear terrorists or malevolent governments of the future.

The age of generating nuclear power may be drawing to a close. But cleaning up its legacy has barely begun.

Fred Pearce is an environmental reporter and author, most recently, of “Fallout: Disasters, Lies and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age.”

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