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11 December 2016

United States: As Nuclear Plants Age, Risks Rise

Aerial view of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in
Plymouth.  Merrily Cassidy/Cape Cod Times
This article discusses safety incidents at nuclear reactors, the disappearance of jobs and middle-class lifestyles due to shut-downs of nuclear plants, nuclear waste, health concerns.  We are posting the last half of the article.

As nuclear plants age, risks rise
by Christine Legere, clegere@capecodonline.com, telegram.com (Worcester, MA), 4 December 2016


Plymouth may be able to mitigate the financial loss of Pilgrim, but, like other sites of shuttered plants across the country, the town will be left with several hundred tons of nuclear waste in the form of highly radioactive spent fuel.

Spent fuel is nuclear fuel that has been used and removed from the reactor core. The Government Accountability Office calls the hot and highly radioactive stuff one of the most hazardous substances created by humans. Some components stay radioactive for tens of thousands of years

The country's nuclear plants are adding about 2,000 metric tons of waste each year to the 76,000 metric tons already sitting at 72 plants across the country.

"If not properly contained or shielded, the intense radioactivity of spent fuel can cause immediate deaths and environmental contamination, and in lower doses can cause long-term health hazards such as cancer," the accountability office said in a study of spent fuel done in 2012 at the request of Congress.

Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, Congress mandated that the federal government open a permanent geological storage facility for nuclear waste from civilian facilities and begin accepting waste by 1998. Plans for such a repository at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, ran into heavy opposition and were halted in 2010. To date no alternative has been found.

More than 70 percent of the spent fuel in the U.S. currently remains at reactor sites, squeezed into tightly racked storage pools that were designed for much smaller loads.

Boron panels, which prevent fission from occurring in the fuel pool, are deteriorating at many sites, including at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. To address the problem, operators shift the hottest fuel in the pools away from the degraded panels. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission currently views the issue as one it will monitor.

Although it does not solve the problem of waste storage in communities across the country, the only way to reduce the danger from spent fuel is to move it to dry casks, mammoth steel-lined concrete structures, says David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists.


Mayor Al Hill says Zion knew what it was signing up for in 1973, when it agreed to host a nuclear power plant: The trade was 267 acres of lakefront property for $18 million in annual revenue. The city did not agree to storing nuclear waste indefinitely

"We have environmental concerns and everybody in the U.S. should have environmental concerns about these rods being so close to Lake Michigan," Hill says. "We're stuck with a nuclear dump."

In July, U.S. Rep. Robert Dold, an Illinois Republican, filed a bill at the urging of Hill and other regional leaders to pay communities storing the nuclear waste. Under the Stranded Nuclear Waste Accountability Act, Zion, which stores more than 1,000 metric tons of spent fuel, would get about $15 million annually. Congressmen from other host communities have signed on to the bill.

The Department of Energy is working on a plan for consent-based interim storage. Andrews County in West Texas, with a total population of under 15,000, has endorsed a proposal submitted by Waste Control Specialists. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing the company's application for a facility that would be ready by 2021 to store 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel from closed commercial reactors.

Holtec International is working on an application for a storage site in southeastern New Mexico and expects to submit its proposal to federal regulators by year's end.


Populations near U.S. reactors, meanwhile, want to know if their proximity poses a health threat. The NRC hired the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study in 2010 but halted the work last year because of costs, expected to be about $8 million.

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has long fought for tighter industry controls, said the agency gambles with the public's health.

"The NRC blames budgetary constraints for ending the study, but what price do residents pay for living near operating nuclear facilities?" he wrote in a statement. "We should know that answer."

Plant owners, however, hope to keep lucrative reactors online despite their age. Most already have extended their reactor licenses for another 20 years beyond the initial 40 they were allowed to operate. And at least two already have indicated their intent to go for another extension, which would allow the plants to continue until they are 80 years old. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes the decision on those extension requests.

In a recent study on extending nuclear plant licenses, the Office of Nuclear Energy said the question that must first be answered for the public is "How safe is safe enough?

"Even with continuous improvements in safety and performance, nuclear power is still perceived by the public as not safe enough," the report noted. "Nuclear power does involve high-consequence events like those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima that are rare but can be catastrophic."

Gunter says further license renewals should not even be considered. He calls the current plants "antiquated" and no longer economically viable without government subsidy.

"They're in a death spiral," Gunter says. "The question now is how quickly can we retire this industry? How much more nuclear waste are we going to generate before we realize enough is enough?"


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